Judicial harassment against journalists: a new form of censorship in Brazil?

Journalists working for big media companies and their independent blogger colleagues are facing the same problem: the risk of lawsuits for their work.

Carlos Santos, an independent journalist and blogger in Mossoró in the northeastern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Norte, was sentenced to more than $3,600 in fines and three months in prison (the jail time was eventually suspended) after posts on his blog about the mayor of his city. (See this Knight Center post from last month about the case.)

Santos is facing 27 other lawsuits and nine arrest orders for posts that “offended” politicians and local officials. The journalist has received jail sentences on three occasions for “insults,” which were later replaced with fines. In three other cases of this type, Santos was absolved.

Reporters without Borders (RSF) has called the cases against Santos a type of censorship. “The problem is firstly to do with the excessive number of lawsuits in response to each allegedly defamatory comment. Abusing the possibility of bringing defamation actions is a form of censorship,” the group said.

Another victim of this type of attack is Lúcio Flávio Pinto, the editor of Jornal Pessoal, who has been targeted with nearly 30 lawsuits for his coverage of environmental issues and raw material trafficking in the Amazon. Last month, a judge threatened to arrest the journalist and fine him $120,000 if he published stories about a local fraud investigation.

Last year, Emilio Neto, a blogger and journalism student in Fortaleza, Ceará, was forced to pay more than $9,500 to a school director after a anonymous commenter wrote something that offended the official on his blog.

Major newspapers have not been able to escape attacks via the courts. In 2008, Folha de São Paulo and its reporter, Elvira Lobato, were sued by members of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, totaling more than 100 individual suits. The congregants were upset with an article about the church's business holdings. Another major paper, O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper has been barred since 2009 from publishing stories about a Federal Police operation that involved the family of Brazilian Senate President José Sarney.

“Imposing a jail sentence for a media offense violates the 1988 democratic constitution, which guarantees free expression in all forms. The federal supreme court’s repeal of the military dictatorship’s 1967 press law in May 2009 was a major step in ensuring respect for this right. It is baffling that some courts still issue jail sentences in defamation cases or impose preventive censorship on media. The federal constitution and jurisprudence should apply everywhere” RSF declared.

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.