Journalists taking great risks to report on sensitive issues in Brazil
Brazilian journalists reporting on controversial topics face routine harassment, including defamation lawsuits. For example, local elected officials in São Gonçalo do Amarante, a town in the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte, have brought a total of eleven defamation cases against two reporters, Francisco Costa and Josi Gonçalves. Costa and Gonçalves are the editors of a news website, Fala RN, which has covered cases of embezzlement of local public funds, nepotism, and electoral fraud involving local politicians.
In reaction to the defamation suits against the two journalists, the head of Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s Latin America desk stated:
“The number of complaints is completely absurd. This is an intimidation campaign designed to silence these journalists and, as such, constitutes a grave violation of freedom of expression. International standards remind that the politician inevitably and knowingly lays himself open to close scrutiny of his by the journalists and the public at large, and he must display a greater degree of tolerance"
Besides dealing with the judicial harassment from the eleven lawsuits – which total more than 57,000 EUR in damages - the journalists also fear for their lives and their families' safety. As RSF reported, "one of [the journalists'] sources within the town council warned them of possible attempts to intimidate them, including the abduction of their four-year-old son and the use of fabricated evidence to have them arrested. According to Costa and Gonçalves, local politicians have also pressured Fala RN’s main advertiser to stop buying space on the website."
In a separate case, former Health Secretary of São Paulo, Giovanni Guido Cerri, has sued journalists Pedro Pomar, Tatiana Merlino, Débora Prado and the Association of Professors of the São Paulo University (AUSP) on account of an article published in the AUSP magazine in May 2013. The article accused Cerri, then a member of the Health Department of the State of São Paulo, of clear conflicts of interest by holding positions in two Social Health Organisations (Organizações Sociais de Saúde - OSS) that had contracts with the Health Department during the time he was in charge (2011-2013). The case against the journalists went to trial, and on 2nd February 2017, the court issued a not-guilty verdict on grounds that there was no proof that the journalists had intended to offend the former official's honour.
In another case, a court justice ruled that actress Monica Iozzi, a Globo TV host, must indemnify Justice Gilmar Mendes, a member of the Federal Court of Justice, by paying $9,500 in damages. Iozzi had portrayed Mendes as an accomplice in a rape case when he granted habeas corpus to Roger Abdelmassih, who was being accused of rape. According to the ruling against Iozzi, she had "abused her right to freedom of expression" by insinuating Mendes's involvement in the case.
Brazil's constitution protects freedom of association; however, a 2016 CIVICUS report on civic space in Latin America and the Caribbean found that restrictions and regulations of civil society organisations are becoming pervasive and burdensome, thus inhibiting civil society's activities and operations.
Despite these and other challenges, however, organisations have been able to effectively mobilise large numbers of people around important and pressing issues. In January 2017, for example, the Social Forum of Resistance (Fórum Social das Resistências) brought together 20,000 people from more than 60 countries under the slogan - "I resist. You resist. We resist." The event in Porto Alegre began with a public demonstration involving various social actors. According to the organisers:
"[The Social Forum developed] in opposition to the Davos Economic Forum, an event that brings together the neoliberal thought that is responsible for the civilisation crisis that humankind is going through. Our proposal is an initiative of several Brazilian social organisations and movements in dialogue with social actors and actresses from Latin America and the world."
The many participants had the opportunity to exchange ideas and create joint action plans as well as attend lectures and workshops on critical topics facing Brazil and the world, such as climate change, conflict and current political trends.