Community newspaper in Brazil forced to close after years of lawsuits

The 26-year-old Brazilian newspaper Já was forced to close after a court sentenced the publication to pay damages to the mother of the ex-governor of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Germano Rigotto, reported the newspaper O Expresso on Jan. 26. The newspaper had a circulation of five thousand in the city of Porto Alegre.

The newspaper, edited by Elmar Bones da Costa, faced civil and criminal charges for publishing a story in May 2001, titled "The Rigotto Case--$65 million and two unsolved deaths" about the governor's brother's involvement in a corruption ring. The piece was awarded the ARI prize from the Rio Grande do Sul Press Association and a regional Esso prize in journalism, according to the website Sul 21.

Despite successfully defeating the criminal charges, Bones was charged in civil court to pay the Rigotto family more than $9,800 in 2003. The editor appealed the decision but, in 2009, when the fine had reached almost $32,000, the plaintiffs asked that 20 percent of the newspaper's gross revenue be frozen. In 2010, Rigotto's lawyers successfully petitioned the court to freeze the personal bank accounts of Bones and his associate, journalist Kenny Braga, reported Conversa Afiada.

In an interview with the newspaper Sul 21, Bones said that "the intimidation that a civil suit provokes in a newsroom is a feeling experienced more and more frequently in the Brazilian press, suffocated by 'financial censorship' from court cases used to silence criticisms of dishonest politicians and officials."

Judicial prosecutions are becoming a threat to press freedom in Brazil. Community-based and small-scale media outlets are especially vulnerable, considering the economic and logistical hurdles involved in defending lawsuits. The website Congresso em Foco is currently the target of a legal strategy utilizing the courts as a tool for censorship.