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Brazil15 May 2004

Government drops deportation threat against New York Times correspondent

15 May 2004

The Brazilian government restored the journalist’s visa of New York Times reporter Larry Rohter on 14 May, dropping its threat to expel him for writing about President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s drinking habits. The justice ministry said it acted after receiving a letter from Rohter’s lawyers saying he had not meant to offend the president.

13 May 2004

Reporters Without Borders protests against expulsion of New York Times correspondent

Reporters Without Borders has protested after the Brazilian justice ministry said it was expelling New York Times correspondent Larry Rohter after he wrote an article about the president’s alleged heavy drinking.

The international press freedom organisation called on the authorities to "see reason" and cancel the order.

Reporters Without Borders said in a letter to the president, "We are surprised by this decision which is unworthy of a democratic regime. Moreover there is a risk that it will damage your image abroad more than the contents of the offending article."

"Libel issues should be decided in the courts. This type of authoritarian measure will not resolve anything," it said. "Brazil proves nothing by expelling Larry Rohter. It could also lead to self-censorship on the part of foreign press correspondents who now know they could be at risk of expulsion when referring to the president," it added. Reporters Without Borders asked for an appointment to Brazilian ambassador in France.

The justice minister announced the expulsion of Rohter on 11 May 2004 following the publication in the paper on 9 May of an article headlined, "Brazilian Leader’s Tippling Becomes National Concern".

Rohter wrote that, "Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has never hidden his fondness for a glass of beer, a shot of whiskey or, even better, a slug of cachaça, Brazil’s potent sugar-cane liquor. But some of his countrymen have begun wondering if their president’s predilection for strong drink is affecting his performance in office."

In an official note, the justice minister said, "The presence of the author of the offending article on national territory is improper". He added that Rohter’s visa had been cancelled. He has eight days to leave the country. The expulsion was justified by the fact the article was, "flippant, lying and damaging to the integrity of the president of the Federal Republic of Brazil and the image of the country."

The New York Times carried a letter from the Brazilian ambassador to the United States on 11 May in which he expressed his "perplexity and indignation" considering it surprising and regrettable that The Times should have given credit to such an offensive and totally unfounded story."

The same day the daily said it stood by its allegations. A spokesman for the newspaper told Agence France-Presse that it believed the article to be correct.

Executive editor Bill Keller said in the online version of the paper on 12 May that if Brazil "intends to expel a journalist for writing an article that offended the president, that would raise serious questions about Brazil’s professed commitment to freedom of expression and a free press."

Reporters Without Borders points out that Brazil had more serious press freedom problems such as the murders at the end of April 2004 of radio journalists Samuel Roman and José Carlos Araújo.

On 20 April, Roman, owner of the radio station Conquista, was killed in Coronel Sapucaia, a small town in southern Mato Grosso do Sul State on the border with Paraguay. He had exposed drug trafficking and criminal activity rampant in the region and among local politicians. Three suspects have been arrested. Four days later, José Carlos Araújo, of Radio Timbaúba FM, was murdered in a small town in Pernambuco State in the north-east. His killer was arrested.

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in the annual report
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