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IAPA concerned over introduction of bill amending wiretapping regulations

(IAPA/IFEX) - The following is a 24 September 2008 IAPA press release:

Wiretap move in Brazil raises concern for IAPA

Miami (September 24, 2008) - The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) today voiced concern at a bill introduced to congress by Brazil's executive branch that would amend the rules regulating wiretaps and make it an offense punishable with imprisonment for journalists and news media executives to divulge information obtained from wiretaps without a judge's authorization.

The chairman of the IAPA's Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Gonzalo Marroquín, offered support for the arguments made by Brazil's National Association of Newspapers (ANJ) criticizing the bill introduced by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's government which would set ground rules for unlawful wiretaps, a move that the organization said "directly affects freedom of the press and amounts to nothing less than an authoritarian and undemocratic proposal."

Marroquín, editor of the Guatemala City, Guatemala, newspaper Prensa Libre, explained, "This amendment, apart from penalizing the unlawful conduct of government officials engaged in telephone wiretapping, at the same time unfairly places the blame on journalists for divulging information that may have been leaked to them and which could be of public interest. In consequence, what is really jeopardized is the people's right to be informed."

The proposed law, currently under debate in the Chamber of Deputies (lower house of Congress), would make it a criminal offense for individual journalists, the press and their news sources to divulge either lawful or unlawful phone taps without court authorization.

The project amends Article 15 of the Penal Code, increasing the prison term from three to five years and imposing fines on anyone who "directly or through third parties" carries out telephone wiretapping "for purposes other than those foreseen under the law." Penalties are increased 50% when a public official is involved. Final passage of the bill would amend Law 9,296/06 which regulates electronic surveillance.

The issue of clandestine recording of phone conversations originated with complaints about wiretaps on politicians and members of the Federal Supreme Court. The most recent incident was the recording of a phone conversation on July 15 between Supreme Court Chief Justice Gilmar Mendes and opposition Senator Demóstenes Torres, published in the magazine Veja a month later. The magazine said the information had been provided by an anonymous source belonging to the Brazilian Intelligence Agency (ABIN), an agency of the Executive branch.

Just who might have ordered the wiretap has sparked an internal debate within the federal government involving official departments, cabinet ministers and members of the judicial and legislative branches. In October 2007, Brazil's Chamber of Deputies set up a Parliamentary Investigative Commission to look into the issue.

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