Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression, and legal protections for the press were strengthened by several court rulings in 2009. However, Brazil’s overall level of press freedom declined due to censorship and political pressure on the media. In April, the Supreme Federal Tribunal overturned the 1967 Press Law, which had imposed harsh criminal penalties for libel and slander. The decision followed a temporary ruling issued a year earlier, in which the tribunal suspended 22 articles of the law due to their incompatibility with the constitution. The Press Law, adopted under military rule, had prescribed up to three years in prison for journalists who reported on facts considered subversive, distorted, or provocative by the government, as well as those whose reporting was considered offensive to public morals or found damaging to a plaintiff’s reputation or dignity. Furthermore, the Press Law had allowed authorities to censor media outlets and writers, and seize publications.
The decision to strike down the Press Law was praised by press freedom advocates. Nonetheless, under the current penal code, journalists can still be jailed for up to two years for criminal defamation, and civil defamation lawsuits sometimes impose stiff penalties. The problem is worse in small cities, where politicians have been accused of using the courts to intimidate newspapers and journalists. The threat of lawsuits has reportedly inhibited investigative journalism, as many outlets merely reproduce material provided by police and prosecutors.
In other legal developments, the Supreme Federal Tribunal in June overturned a law requiring journalists to hold a college degree in journalism. The ruling was supported by media companies and the National Association of Newspapers, but was criticized by the National Federation of Journalists and journalism schools. Professionals expressed concern that the decision would ultimately shrink salaries and lower journalism standards. More than 15 public universities reported fewer applicants to their journalism programs in 2009.
Also during the year, President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva submitted draft legislation to Congress that would introduce the right to public information. Several sectors of Brazilian society, including journalists, engaged in informal online discussions seeking to improve transparency and political participation and to lobby legislators to approve the bill through websites and public campaigns. On a less positive note, an alliance of heterogeneous groups including unions, student and professional associations, nongovernmental organizations, and leftist groups sponsored by the federal government have proposed mechanisms for the “social control” of the media, including the creation of a national communication council to oversee journalistic activity. The alliance hopes to have such projects approved by the next president.
Instances of official censorship increased in 2009. In July, a federal court in Brasilia, the capital, prohibited the prominent daily newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo from publishing reports on a corruption scandal over questionable real-estate operations involving the family of former president Jose Sarney, who is currently president of the Senate. In addition, the court ruled that the paper would be fined US$87,000 for every story published on the case. The ban extended to other news outlets, which were forbidden from reproducing or quoting the newspaper’s stories. O Estado de S. Paulo was still under censorship at year’s end. The case centered on technicalities related to legally obtained information and federal police wiretaps on businessman Fernando Sarney, the former president’s son. The judge who issued the ban is a former Senate adviser and a personal friend of the Sarney family. Even though Fernando Sarney withdrew his lawsuit against O Estado de S. Paulo in December, the court left the ban in place to “protect the dignity and honor” of the Senate’s president.
The Brazilian Press Association and international organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) registered a number of cases of criminal and civil defamation lawsuits, censorship, violence, and intimidation during the year. The most bizarre example involved 44 suits against 38 journalists and 13 news outlets by congressional representative Edmar Moreira, who was apparently irritated by reports on his alleged involvement in official corruption in Brasilia and his undeclared US$14.2 million mansion. Although Moreira was cleared of the corruption accusations by the congressional ethics body, his defamation suits against the media proceeded.
Civil suits, some involving considerable sums of money, are an increasingly common intimidation tactic. Among other cases during the year, Debate, the weekly newspaper of Santa Cruz do Rio Pardo, was forced to pay about US$300,000 in damages to a local judge after revealing that he lived in a house paid for by the city and kept an illegal public telephone inside. In Para state, journalist Lucio Flavio Pinto—a past recipient of the CPJ International Press Freedom Award and the target of a dozen criminal and civil defamation lawsuits for his reporting on drug trafficking, environmental devastation, and corporate corruption—was ordered by a judge to pay US$15,000 in libel damages to the owners of the local newspaper O Liberal for criticizing the media group’s economic power and influence.
Physical threats and attacks against journalists were reported throughout the country, especially in the northeastern region. In January, correspondent Alex Pimentel of the Diario do Nordeste received a death threat after reporting fraud in the distribution of water to rural communities. Danny de Moraes, editor of a blog about local politics, received death threats in April for his reporting on corruption in Rondonia state. In August, the offices of radio station Diario FM were attacked by four unidentified assailants who tied up a security guard and sabotaged transmision equipment. In September, two sons of a former councilman assaulted reporter Rafael Dias of the Diario de Pernambuco over his story on the cause of their father’s death. Also that month, Devanil da Silva, host of a television program about police violence, was shot and wounded in the southern state of Parana. In October, Wellington Raulino, owner of a local television station in Piaui state, was badly beaten by four men who were allegedly hired by the city’s mayor. Unidentified assailants shot and killed radio host and newspaper owner Jose Givonaldo Vieira in December near Recife; his radio program had focused on local issues. Despite such attacks, Brazil made some progress during the year in addressing its long-standing record of impunity by bringing perpetrators to justice in two cases: the 2003 death of Nicanor Linhares, host of a radio show in the state of Ceara, and the 2008 kidnapping and torture of two journalists in Rio de Janeiro.
Brazil is South America’s largest media market, with thousands of radio stations, hundreds of television channels, and a variety of major newspapers. Ownership is highly concentrated in the hands of media conglomerates, particularly in the broadcast sector. The Globo Organizations conglomerate enjoys a dominant position, controlling Brazil’s principal television and cable networks as well as several radio stations and print outlets. Another company, Editora Abril, leads Brazil’s magazine market. One in every five legislators on the powerful Committee on Science, Technology, Communication, and Information has business connections to radio and television stations. Hundreds of politicians nationwide are either directors or partners in some 300 media companies, most of them radio and television stations, according to the independent media monitoring group Media Owners (Donos da Midia).The internet is used by approximately 39 percent of the population, and access is not restricted. However, the government frequently requests information on internet users and the removal of online content, according to a preliminary report by Google. These requests may be due to the widespread use of civil defamation lawsuits.