Local courts allow proliferation of lawsuits designed to censor journalists
Carlos Santos, a freelance journalist and blogger based in Mossoró, a town in the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte, was ordered this month of February to pay 6,000 reais (2,600 euros) to charities for posting three allegedly defamatory comments about the town's mayor, Fátima Rosado, on his blog ( http://www.blogdocarlossantos.com.br/ ).
This sentence fortunately replaced the one originally imposed - a month and four days in prison for each of a total of four comments.
"I am under attack but I am all right," Santos told Reporters Without Borders yesterday, referring to the 27 or so prosecutions and nine arrest orders still pending against him as a result of defamation suits by local politicians and officials. So far he has been convicted three times of criminal insult although in each case the sentence was reduced to a fine. He was acquitted in three other cases.
"The comments Santos posted on his blog could rightly be regarded as vehement even if two of them accused the mayor of being unfit for her job and the third one did not name anyone," Reporters Without Borders said. "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. Secondly, imposing a jail sentence for a media offence 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."
Also in February, a judge in the northern state of Pará, Antônio Carlos Almeida Campelo, issued an injunction against Lúcio Flávio Pinto, the editor of the online and byweekly newspaper Jornal Pessoal, forbidding him to publish any information about a fax fraud case that the federal authorities have brought against O Liberal, a company that owns several regional newspapers.
If he disobeys the injunction, he could be jailed or fined up to 200,000 reais (87,000 euros) on a charge of violating the confidentiality of a judicial investigation. Yet, according to Pinto, the injunction was not requested by the defendants.
Pinto is another example of a journalist who has been swamped by lawsuits. Around 30 legal actions have been brought against him over his articles about environmental abuses and trafficking in raw materials in the Amazon.
His case is similar to that of José Huerta, a documentary filmmaker who is the target of eight lawsuits - one of them a criminal prosecution - in connection with his latest documentary, which is about the perverse effects of tourism in the state of Ceará.