Mr. Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva, President of the Federal Republic of Brazil
Ms. Dilma Roussef, Minister of the Presidency
Mr. Renan Calheiros, President of the Senate
Mr. Jader Barbalho, President of the Chamber of Deputies Commission for Science, Technology, Communication and Computing
Mr. Nelson Jobim, President of the Federal Supreme Court
Dear Madam, Dear Sirs,
Reporters Without Borders has learned with concern of the plight of Lúcio Flávio Pinto, the founder and editor of the bimonthly Jornal Pessoal, based in Belém, in the northern state of Pará, who is currently the target of 18 lawsuits, ten of them for libel, as a result of covering such sensitive issues as drug trafficking, Amazonian deforestation and local corruption. He has also been threatened and physically attacked. Obliged to stay at home and organise his defence, he will be unable to attend a ceremony in New York at the end of the month at which he is to receive a prize. Worse still, he faces up to three years in prison if two existing convictions are confirmed on appeal. He was convicted under the press law of 9 February 1967, the law under which all the other actions have been brought against him.
Mr. Pinto is not the only journalist to have been assailed under this law. José de Arimatéia Azevedo, the manager of the Portal AZ website in Teresina (in the northeastern state of Piauí), was arrested on 26 October 2005 and held for 48 hours for “insult and libel” and “pressure on the course of a judicial procedure.” Alvanir Ferreira Avelino of the daily newspaper Dois Estados, was arrested on 29 August 2003 in Rio de Janeiro state and sentenced to 10 and a half months in an open prison as a result of libel actions. He served a similar sentence in 2001 for a “crime of opinion.”
It is time to finish with this iniquitous law which, although rarely applied, is nonetheless incorporated into the Brazilian federal constitution and continues to weigh heavily on free expression as a whole and press freedom in particular.
Is it normal for a law inherited from military rule (the military regime of 1964-1985) to be still in force in a democracy after all this time? The situation is all the more absurd as Brazil, like almost all the countries in the Americas, signed the Declaration of Chapultepec of 11 March 1994 on free expression, which was dawn up by the Inter-American Press Association. Among other things, this declaration recognises that it is the role of the press to challenge the government, but the 1967 law does not let the Brazilian press perform this role.
The incompatibility of the 1967 law with current laws, case history and treaties is not the only issue. The danger lies in the letter of the law itself, which gives often elastic definitions of press offences and makes them punishable by prison sentences.
Article 14, for example, says that “war propaganda, procedures to subvert the political and social order, or race or class prejudice” are punishable by one to four years in prison. Hunting down “subversion” is the prerogative of repressive regimes. And should editorials be likened these days to propaganda?
Article 17 envisages a sentence of one to three years in prison and a fine equivalent to one to 20 times the minimum salary for “offending public decency and moral standards.” What are the current limits of “public decency” and “moral standards” ?
Similar penalties are stipulated for “slander” (article 20), “defamation” (article 21) and “insult” (articles 22) and even “defamation and insult of the memory of the dead” (articles 24). These offence are treated as “crimes.” Article 23 increases the penalties by a third if any of the offences mentioned in articles 20-22 is committed against:
the president of the republic, the president of the federal senate, the president of the chamber of deputies, the judges of the federal supreme court, foreign heads of state or government or their diplomatic representatives.
a public official, in his or her official capacity.
an entity or authority that perform the role of a state authority.
This article is not just contrary to the Declaration of Chapultepec, it also constitutes a serious negation of the news media’s role to criticise the authorities and offers an easy way of silencing journalists, especially those working for local newspapers. The 1967 law is all the more unfair as it is used against “small” media which generally have few resources. Furthermore, and paradoxically, it is used above all in the state courts and very little at the federal court level.
All of these reasons should lead you now to repeal the press law of 9 February 1967, of which higher court of justice president Edson Vidigal has on several occasions said it has been “implicitly rendered invalid by the 1988 constitution.”
We hope a broad democratic debate followed by a parliamentary vote will achieve this goal.
Reporters Without Borders