Freedom of expression, an unfulfilled promise in Brazil

The following text was first published at the Sustainable Governance Indicators News' website.


Brazil’s media is characterized by oligopolistic ownership and certain opinions dominate. Journalists and human rights activist call for new laws and regulations to safeguard freedom of speech and access to information in the host country of the 2014 World Cup.

Since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985, Brazil has been known as a free country regarding free speech and access to information. Although both rights are guaranteed in the Constitution of 1988, there is a disturbing distance between the words written on paper and their implementation in practice. But even though the dark period of censorship and torture of dissident voices in the dungeons of the dictatorship has ended, some recent events raise questions about the good shape of freedom of expression and access to information in the host country of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

In January, Lúcio Flávio Pinto, one of Brazil’s most prestigious journalists and founder of the independent newsletter Jornal Pessoal, was sentenced to pay over $200,000 to the businessman Romulo Maiorana Júnior and his family’s company. The lawsuit was based on a report Pinto had published titled, "O rei da quitanda" ("The king of small shops"), following the business dealings of Organizações Romulo Maiorana, which is one of the largest media groups in Northern Brazil. Pinto accused Romulo Maiorana to use his company to put undue pressure on advertisers.

For his constant reporting on corruption and illegal trade of wood products Mr. Pinto has faced 33 lawsuits by now. His case is a perfect example of the judicial censorship which increasingly harasses media professionals in Brazil. While freedom of expression remains a fundamental right, the court system has become an effective way for undermining media organizations and silencing critical journalists and bloggers.

A small number of media companies dominate opinion in Brazil

Mr. Pinto’s prosecution is also a symbol of another threat to media freedom in Brazil: the legacy to of "colonels", archetypal large landowners or industrialists who also hold political offices and therefore have great influence over the media and public opinion.

This situation is highlighted in a report by Reporters Without Borders, "Brazil, the country of 30 Berlusconis", a reference to Italy's ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who owns the largest Italian media corporation. The report emphasizes the high concentration of media ownership in Brazil: 10 business groups control almost all media organizations in the country.

This fact is also emphasized in the Brazil report of the Sustainable Governance Indicators, where the country received 3 out of 10 points in the assessment of media pluralism. Brazil thus lags behind the other BRICS countries India, Russia and South Africa. Here only China scores lower.

One of the best examples of the oligopolistic structure of the Brazilian mass media is the dominance of Rede Globo, Brazil’s and Latin Americas largest TV network: In 2012, it held more than 43 percent of the total TV market share. In the same year, the government invested more than 62 percent of its advertising funds into television broadcastings, according to a statement released by Altercom, the Association of Small Business and Individual Entrepreneurs of Communication.

According to the report by Reporters Without Borders, "the Brazilian media reflect their almost incestuous relationship with the political and economic power centers. Concentration of ownership at the national and regional level and harassment and censorship at the more local level are the distinguishing features of a system that has never really been questioned since the end of the 1964 - 1985 military dictatorship, with community media often the main victims."

Activists call for a new Internet law to guarantee the rights of users and net neutrality

Despite the constitutional ban on such overlapping of interests, it's hard to take away a media concession from a politician. Besides, nepotism can also hide the true ownership of a radio station or a local newspaper. For many activists, the problem is the lack of regulatory legislation for communications, a quite controversial topic that separates its supporters from others who see this move as a dangerous interference in the content of the broadcasters.

João Brant, an expert in communications regulation and policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, believes that a stricter regulatory framework could ensure greater access to media and the plurality of voices in society:

"What the Constitution protects primarily is freedom of expression. This freedom is now smothered in Brazil and one of the reasons is that the private media do not give room for diversity to appear. (...) The concern with interference in the content is absolutely valid and must exist, but it cannot be a reason for giving up the debate and the search for solutions," he argues in an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

In this scenario, the Internet could emerge as an alternative channel of communication. However, Internet access is still difficult and expensive in Brazil. Moreover, websites and blogs are increasingly being targeted by court-ordered censorship, which represents a death sentence to many which don’t have the means to shoulder the costs of judicial representation.

On the subject of online content blackout, in the latest Google Transparency Report, released last April, Brazil is the country with most government requests for content removal by judicial orders. In the second half of 2012, the search giant received 1,461 court-ordered demands from governments around the world to remove content, including YouTube videos and search results, with nearly 43 percent of them coming from Brazilian authorities.

Meanwhile, net activists anxiously wait for the adoption of a new Internet law called Marco Civil, which establishes the rights and obligations of Internet users in Brazil and guarantees net neutrality. The draft law was approved by the Senate in 2011, but a vote in the Chamber of Deputies has been postponed five times because of a lack of consensus and the resistance from telecom companies.

Every month, a journalist or human rights activist is killed in Brazil

This fragile setting encourages violence against media professionals. A research from the NGO Article 19 released last March finds that one journalist or human rights defender is killed every four weeks because of their work in Brazil. For each killing, there are more than three instances of reporters or human rights advocates suffering attempts on their life, according to the publication.

The study’s findings were based on the NGO’s investigations into murders, attempted murders, death threats, kidnappings and disappearances in the country. In total, 52 journalists and human rights defenders experienced serious freedom of expression violations in Brazil in 2012. That is one a week on average.

The emblematic case of the journalist Lúcio Flávio Pinto and the numbers stated by Article 19, Reporters Without Borders and Google contradict the apparently absolute access to information right that many argue exists in Brazil. An effective manifestation of the country’s social plurality is still far from reality. But the rough governmental respect for the independence of the media still leads to the disclosure of cases of corruption and to reports – however poorly – on the exercise of power. This is enough for the country to receive 7 out of 10 points in the assessment of media freedom, according to the Sustainable Governance Indicators.

Important projects related to the freedom of expression and, ultimately, to democracy – such as the regulatory framework for communications and the Marco Civil – remain shelved. They dependent on the political will of exactly those who benefit from their failure. With appropriate legislative reforms and the fulfillment of the fundamental precepts of the Brazilian constitution, the freedom of expression can certainly comply more successfully with its role as a thermometer of the quality of democracy.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.