The judges of Brazil’s highest legal jurisdiction, the Federal Supreme Court (STF), meeting in plenary session on 27 February confirmed their decision, described as preliminary, proposed by judge, Carlos Ayres Britto, on 21 February to suspend the application of 20 of the 77 articles of the 1967 press law. This law, inherited from the military dictatorship, provides for prison sentences for offences of “insult, denigration and defamation”. The law is no longer applied at federal level since it conflicts with the 1998 Constitution, but is still used effectively against journalists in some states. Reporters Without Borders welcomes this historic decision which marks an irreversible step towards decriminalisation of press offences.
Among the ten members of the STF who will rule on the question, six have approved the partial suspension of the law called for by Carlos Ayres Britto, three have voted to suspend the law entirely and just one voted against for procedural reasons. The top judges have a deadline of six months from 27 February to ratify a definitive suspension of the 1967 law. The judges’ decision opens the way to a full repeal of the law, which was proposed in a draft bill put forward in December by federal deputy, Miro Teixeira.
16.01.08 - Letter to deputy Miro Teixeira backing his proposal for repeal of 1967 press law
Mr. Miro Teixeira, Deputy
Chamber of Deputies
Praça dos Três Poderes
Brasilia - D.F.
Dear Deputy Teixeira,
Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom organisation, welcomes your move to repeal the press law that was adopted in February 1967, during the darkest hours of the 1964-85 military dictatorship, and we hope the federal Chamber of Deputies will soon approve the bill to this effect that you submitted to Speaker Arlindo Chinaglia on 6 December, which he has accepted in principle.
The 1967 law was made obsolete by the 1988 constitution, which enshrines press freedom as a fundamental right, and it has been abandoned by the federal courts. But it unfortunately continues to be a weapon that is too often used at the local level to intimidate and silence journalists, as you have pointed out. In supporting your bill, Reporters Without Borders hopes that it will provide an opportunity to resolve three problems for the Brazilian press that restrict free expression.
1- Repeal of the 1967 law would in effect decriminalize all press offences and replace prison sentences by the civil reparations such as fines and the right of response that your bill recommends. This is in line with the Chapultepec Declaration, which the Inter-American Press Association adopted on 11 March 1994 and which President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva signed on 3 May 2006. The declaration also invalidates any use of the current press legislation but it is only effective as long as the president who signed it remains in office. It does not bind his successors.
Under article 14 of the 1967 law, “making propaganda for war or for behaviour designed to subvert the political and social order” is punishable by one to four years in prison. Article 17 makes “offending public morals and decency” punishable by one to three years in prison and a fine of up to 20 times the minimum wage. Similar penalties are stipulated for slander (article 20), defamation (article 21) and insult (article 22). Article 23 provides for a three-fold increase in these penalties if the victim is a public figure or institution.
2- Your bill uses a broad definition of who is a journalist, one that accepts that all those providing news and information, including bloggers, have a right to be treated as such. We agree with this definition, which runs counter to the professionalisation of journalism that was imposed by the military regime. It is also at odds with those currently arguing that a professional qualification in journalism should be a requirement for anyone working as a journalist.
Media and journalists organisations are deeply split on this issue. On 26 July 2006, President Lula vetoed a law on “enhancing the status of the journalism profession” that would have extended the journalism degree requirement to sports commentators, journalism professors, photographers, print media graphic artists and others, and would have created an entity to regulate the news media.
A ruling issued by the Higher Court of Justice (STJ) on 8 November 2006 endorsed the position that journalists should be required to have a journalism degree but this was overturned two weeks later by the Federal Supreme Court (STF), Brazil’s highest federal court. The STF’s ruling continues to prevail for the time being, and we hope it will be confirmed by the new law.
3- The last point worrying us is the increase in the number of prior censorship orders issued by courts to websites and blogs as well as newspapers, which are often the result of pressure by local politicians on courts at the state level.
A Porto Alegre court, for example, last month forced journalist Vitor Vieira to remove 17 posts form the Vide Versus website containing extracts from the transcripts of the tapped phone conversations of a Rio Grande do Sul state deputy. Their content was the subject of a judicial investigation, but should a journalist be faulted for doing his job and making them public? Your bill would facilitated the use of the right of response. The deputy concerned, Alceu Moreira, would have been able to defend himself.
In another example, a Rio de Janeiro state court banned the broadcast media on 10 January from naming or showing three students convicted of assaulting a prostitute in November. The measure was especially absurd as the case had already been tried and the sentence had been made public. More seriously, Rádio e TV Educativa do Paraná, a local public broadcaster, was banned outright by a federal judge on 8 January from reporting the views of Paraná state governor Roberto Requião. Your law must also put an end to such judicial abuses, which violate the right to report the news and the public’s right to know it.