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Brazilian court flouts confidentiality of sources in SwissLeaks case

This statement was originally published on rsf.org on 11 October 2016.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) regards a federal court decision granting the police investigators access to the phone records of Época news magazine reporter Murilo Ramos as a grave attack on freedom of information in Brazil.

The police had been trying for months to identify who within the Financial Activities Control Council (COAF) gave Ramos the list of Brazilian citizens with secret accounts with British bank HSBC's Swiss operations that Ramos published in February 2015.

The federal court issued its decision on 17 August but it was only on 8 October that its existence was revealed by the National Association of Magazine Publishers (ANER).

HSBC's tax avoidance schemes were exposed thanks to the “SwissLeaks” investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. But it was the COAF, a Brazilian economy ministry offshoot responsible for combatting money laundering and the financing of terrorism, that compiled the list of Brazilian citizens with HSBC accounts.

Ramos was questioned by the federal police in July 2016 but naturally refused to identify his source, invoking his rights under the Brazilian law that protects the confidentiality of journalists' sources. According to Joao Quirino Florio, the person in charge of the police investigation, getting access to his phone records was the only way to identify the source of the leak.

“We firmly condemn this violation of the confidentiality of sources and call on the judicial authorities to suspend the decision at once,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of RSF's Latin America desk.

“The confidentiality of sources is a fundamental right for journalists and one of the pillars of media freedom. The Brazilian authorities must be aware that this right is guaranteed by Brazil's constitution and by the declaration of principles of freedom of expression of the Organization of American States. We therefore join the ANER in denouncing what it describes as 'an extremely grave attack on the freedom to practice journalism' in Brazil.”

This is not the first time that the confidentiality of journalists' sources has been flouted in Brazil. Allan de Abreu, a reporter for the Diário da Região newspaper, was investigated for nearly four years after revealing details of a federal police investigation in 2011 into alleged corruption involving civil servants in Rio Preto (in São Paulo state).

The Supreme Federal Tribunal, Brazil's highest court, had to intervene twice to protect De Abreu's rights. The investigation was finally closed in 2015.

Brazil is ranked 104th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

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