The killing of journalist Mario Coelho de Almeida Filho in Rio de Janeiro state showed once more that the threat to press freedom comes from local officials and is directed against local media. Coelho, who ran a small paper, was murdered after accusing two local politicians of fraud in their management of public funds.
The national media demonstrated its freedom in 2001 by publishing material that led to the fall of several senators, including Antonio Carlos Magalhães ("ACM"), the former governor of Bahia state. His fading influence in his home state may have helped reduce the impunity in the case of the 1998 murder of journalist Manoel Leal de Oliveira in Itabuna (southern Bahia state), in which an aide of the governor is a suspect. Six other killings of journalists in the state during the 1990s remain unsolved however. In Salvador, the state capital still controlled by ACM’s allies, the opposition denounced the use of official advertising to profit media organs belonging to the former governor’s family.
Several court decisions endangered press freedom during the year. A paper in São Paulo state was in danger of closing after being ordered to pay 230,000 reals (125,000 euros) in libel damages. In the western state of Rondônia, a journalist was sentenced to do three months public service for publishing what a judge said was an "insulting" report. In the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, a court ordered an issue of one newspaper to be seized, while another court imposed pre-censorship by banning the daily Jornal Pioneiro from publishing an article it said violated the privacy of an individual and his right to protect his reputation.
A journalist killed
Mario Coelho de Almeida Filho, editor of the small thrice-weekly A Verdade, distributed in the towns of Magé and Duque de Caxias (50 km from Rio de Janeiro), was shot dead with four bullets on his way home on 16 August 2001. The killer was seen by several people and an identikit portrait was made of him. The murder came the day before the journalist was due to give evidence in a libel case brought against him by the mayor of Duque de Caxias, José Camilo Zito dos Santos, and his wife Narriman Zito, the mayor of Magé. The family of Coelho, who had accused the pair of fraud in handling public funds and Mrs Zito of adultery, said he had received threats that may have come from the two mayors. Retired military police sergeant Manoel Daniel de Abreu Filho, who fitted the description of the killer and was identified by witnesses, was arrested on 15 September. He was the bodyguard of Maristela Corrêa Nazario, the sister-in-law of José Camilo Zito. He was freed on 9 October after the case was transferred to the Rio police. The first investigator in charge of the case said the murder was clearly linked to the revelations in the articles. An enquiry by the Inter-American Press Association said Coelho had received money from some local politicians.
New information on a journalist
killed before 2001 Maria Alicia de Araújo, a city councillor in Itabuna, in southern Bahia state, was summoned on 27 December 2001 by the judge investigating the 1998 murder of Manoel Leal de Oliveira, founder and managing editor of the weekly A Região. The judge, Cinthia Portela, had indicted Marcone Sarmento, Mozart da Costa Brasil and Thomaz Iracy Guedes during 2001 as the three suspected killers. By the end of the year, only former policeman Da Costa Brasil had been arrested, and jailed in Salvador, where he reportedly confessed to taking part in the murder but said he thought the intention was just to give the journalist a fright. He was said to have accused Sarmento of firing the fatal shots. Leal de Oliveira’s son Marcel, who took over A Região after his father’s death, said Sarmento had been seen in late December walking freely in Itabuna despite there being a warrant for his arrest. It was well known in the city that Sarmento, a hired killer already being sought in the murder of a policeman, was having an affair with Cllr. de Araújo. Leal de Oliveira was shot dead outside his house in the city on 14 January 1998. Witnesses said a pick-up truck parked in the same street immediately made off with three men in it. The journalist had several times accused the city’s mayor, Fernando Gomes, and Cllr. de Araújo of abuses. In December 1997, he had accused the police commissioner, Gilson Prata, of being corrupted by the mayor. Marconi de Souza, a journalist with the daily A Tarde, told Reporters Without Borders that Prata had privately confirmed to him that the killers had acted on the mayor’s orders, but Prata later denied having said this. Marcel Leal said he was sure the main suspects were being protected "by those controlling the police and the courts in Bahia state." Some observers thought the investigation was now moving forward because of the fading influence of former state governor Antonio Carlos Magalhães, who was close to Mayor Gomes.
Nine journalists attacked
On 2 October 2001, an Indian tribe in the west-central state of Mato Grosso kidnapped nine journalists from the daily newspapers A Tribuna and Jornal de Hoje and three local TV stations, Cidade, Centro America and Gazeta, who were covering the occupation of a section of the highway by Indians angry that the government had broken its promise to give them back their ancestral lands. They were freed three days later. A year earlier, the Indians had kidnapped another group of journalists in similar circumstances, also to pressure the authorities.
Two journalists threatened
Cristina Guimarães, of the TV Globo group, received death threats in December 2001. In August she had reported on drug-dealing in the Rio de Janeiro slum of Rocinha, showing the dealers selling drugs in a marketplace. The pictures led to the arrest of some of the drug traffickers, who were reported to have then sworn to kill her. A employee of the station was kidnapped on 20 October and taken to Rocinha, where he was interrogated about who wrote the article. Soon afterwards, Guimarães started getting threats and said two strangers on a motor-cycle had pulled alongside her car at a traffic light and asked if she was Cristina. The journalist now has bodyguards.
Jessé Olympio, of the daily A Tarde, in Bahia state, received death threats at the end of December after an article he wrote in the paper on 18 December denouncing fraud in an agricultural project in the town of Riachão das Neves. An enquiry has been opened as a result.
Pressure and obstruction
The station TV Bahia and the daily Correio de Bahia, both belonging to the Rede Bahia media group, sued journalist Marconi de Souza, of the daily A Tarde, in Bahia state, for libel on 11 January 2001 in connection with an article he wrote on 25 October 2000 which reported a claim by Salvador city councillors that 80 per cent of the city government’s advertising was place with Rede Bahia, which belongs to the family of former state governor Antonio Carlos Magalhães. The article quoted the remarks of opposition politicians, one of whom said it was "disgraceful" to give public money to a firm close to Sen. Magalhães’ family and deplored "the links between state and city funds and Rede Bahia’s accounts department."
Nilson Mariano and Altair Nobre, of the daily Zero Hora, published in Rio Grande do Sul state, were summoned to police headquarters in Porto Alegre on 20 and 22 February and asked to reveal their sources for a story they wrote in the paper on 10 February saying that the new police chief, Pedro Urdangarin, was being investigated for "passive corruption" among the city’s police.
Mário Quevedo Neto, of the paper Folha do Sul, in Vilhena, in the western state of Rondônia, began a three-month sentence on 4 May of performing public service. He had written an article in 1998 about conditions in the town’s prison which, though officially closed, still housed several hundred inmates in bad conditions. Judge Adolfo Theodoro Naujorks Neto felt insulted and sued the journalist, who was at first sentenced to four months in prison, which was then commuted on appeal to three months public service, which he served in the ombudsman’s office in the state capital, Porto Velho.
Claudio Camargo, editor of the international section of the weekly Isto E, was pressured at the end of June not to publish an article by journalist and university teacher Luis Milman about gambling in Rio Grande do Sul state which condemned the state for introducing a new game despite a court decision banning states from being involved in such activities.
On 21 July, Judge Ana Paula Braga Alencastro ordered the seizure of the next day’s issue of the daily Tribuna Popular, in São Lourenço do Sul, in Rio Grande do Sul state. The paper is being sued by the town’s mayor, Dari Pagel, for "harming his moral integrity" in an article due to appear in the seized edition mentioned that a complaint had been lodged against him and five other people for fraud in administering the town’s pension and social security funds. The paper had printed a headline saying "Accused mayor could be fired." The judge said the paper had no right to "manipulate public opinion and soil the reputation of a public figure."
A judge in Caxias do Sul, in Rio Grande do Sul state, banned the daily Jornal Pioneiro on 22 August from publishing an article about the kidnapping of a lawyer who, learning of the forthcoming article, had called the paper and asked them not to run. The paper agreed only not to use his real name, so the lawyer immediately obtained an injunction. The judge cited the lawyer’s "unalienable right to privacy" and his right to protect his reputation.
A court in Brasilia on 4 October confirmed the award of 230,000 reals (125,000 euros) in libel damages against the weekly O Debate. The suit was begun in 1995 by Judge Antônio José Magdalena, who the paper said had enjoyed a free apartment and telephone paid for by the authorities in the town of Santa Cruz do Rio Pardo. O Debate had been first ordered, in 1996, to pay 340,000 reals in damages, but this was reduced on appeal in August 1999 to 230,000 reals. Payment of the sum, which was almost twice the capital of the paper, would mean the paper having to close. Samuel MacDowell, O Debate’s lawyer, said the penalty violated the civil code, which requires damages to take into account the financial resources of the defendant. The paper’s owner and managing editor, Sergio Fleury Moraes, said he would appeal the decision to the supreme court.