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Brazil26 February 2008

Evangelical church loses two more lawsuits against São Paulo daily

A Folha de São Paulo won two more court victories on 22 February against the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (IURD), one of Brazil’s most influential evangelical churches, which has launched around 60 lawsuits against the daily in a total of 20 states.

The newspaper already won five of these cases, which were prompted by an article in December about the church’s sizable assets. The actions have all been brought by individual members of the church, who claim the article “offended” their religious sentiments.

One of the two latest cases was in Tarauacá, in the western Amazonian state of Acre, where judge Romário Divino Faria ruled that IURD member Cléber Andrade dos Santos “was not offended on an individual basis.” In Cianorte, in the southern state of Paraná, judge Fabiano Berbel dismissed the suit brought by Jackson Luis Gonçalves.

Two other daily newspapers, the Rio de Janeiro-based Extra and the Salvador da Bahia-based A Tarde, have meanwhile been the target of 40 lawsuits over their reports of a case in which an IURD member profaned images in a Catholic church in the northeastern state of Bahia.

All these lawsuits have been brought under a 1967 press law under which journalists can be imprisoned for defamation and insulting comments. Inherited from the former military dictatorship, the law has effectively lapsed. Federal supreme court judge Carlos Ayres Britto suspended application of 20 of its 77 articles on 21 February in a ruling issued independently of the IURD lawsuits. His decision, which is awaiting confirmation by the court in a plenary session, could speed the adoption of a bill presented in December by federal parliamentarian Miro Teixeira that would completely overturn the provisions of the 1967 law.

Reporters Without Borders welcomes the latest rulings in favour of A Folha de São Paulo and, like Brazil’s journalists’ organisations, hopes that the Teixeira bill will be quickly debated and adopted.

21.02.08 - Unjustified lawsuits by church against press condemned

Reporters Without Border today condemned the “harassment” of three journalists and their newspapers by followers of the Brazil-based evangelical Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus - IURD), who have filed dozens of lawsuits against the media.

The daily paper A Folha de São Paulo and one of its reporters, Elvira Lobato, is facing about 50 individual suits filed in more than 20 of the country’s states after she wrote about the church’s finances. The Rio de Janeiro daily Extra and its editor, Bruno Thys, and the Salvador de Bahia (northeastern Brazil) daily A Tarde and one of its reporters, Valmar Hupsel Filho, have had 40 suits filed against them for reporting that a IURD member defiled a Catholic religious image.

“Press freedom allows anyone to respond to what they consider defamation, but such a concerted legal campaign is different from normal defence,” the organisation said. “Why has the IURD not filed a single lawsuit against each paper? The mass individual litigation looks like concerted harassment of the media. A religious argument is also not valid in the suit against A Folha de São Paulo. We declare our support for the three newspapers.”

Lobato reported in A Folha de São Paulo last 15 December about the hugely-wealthy IURD’s links with tax havens. She did not name any church member or discuss its doctrines. But some 50 IURD members said their religious beliefs were “insulted” and each filed a lawsuit. The paper says the scattering of the cases over many states all at the same time makes an effective defence impossible. The judiciary has rejected the papers’ request for the suits to be merged into one. However Lobato and A Folha have already won five of the cases.

The 35 complaints filed against A Tarde and Hupsel Filho and the five against Thys and Extra follow reports in the two papers last December of the defiling of a Catholic image in a Salvador de Bahia church. The IURD says the reports amounted to “incitement to hatred” of its followers. The IURD TV station TV Record attacked the daily O Globo this month (17 February) for calling the IURD a sect. The station screened a photo of Lobato.

Brazilian journalists have backed the three papers. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said on 19 February that “press freedom means the press can write what it likes but also allows those who think they have been wronged to take legal action to prove their innocence.”

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