Judicial censorship and self-censorship

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By EUGENIO BUCCI*

Everything changes when a power external to the journalistic sphere, the Judiciary, takes upon itself the authority to hold a press organization responsible for statements made by third parties.

Every government, no matter how good it is, needs to have a free press behind it, even if fallible. Even if the ruler cultivates the best intentions in the world 24 hours a day, even if he never encounters a conflict of interest, even if he has no troublesome relatives, even if he is one step away from sainthood, the work of independent and critical newsrooms , even if they stumble and make a mistake, it will do them good – because it will do society good.

It's obvious, isn't it? For a democracy to run on safe paths, the power of the State must be monitored by society and, without professional reporters, no society monitors any power. We are talking here about an elementary, basic principle, of clear evidence, a principle about which there should be no doubt. However, this simple – and deadly – ​​point has not yet been well understood by a considerable number of Brazilian authorities.

Right now, at the beginning of the month, the newspaper The State of S. Paul was the victim of a measure by the Judiciary that unduly restricted his freedom. Here is a summary.

On December 6, judge José Eulálio Figueiredo de Almeida, from the 8th Civil Court of Maranhão, ordered the suppression of two reports from the newspaper The State of S. Paul who accurately and objectively reported the concession, by the Ministry of Communications, of TV retransmitters to a broadcaster linked to the political group of the holder of the portfolio, Juscelino Filho. In the same sentence, the judge ordered the reporters to recant for having published “false information” and, in an advisory tone, further asserted: “even when the news is true, it must be disseminated without exaggeration, without hoaxes, without bias and without affront".

The suffocation was short-lived, thankfully. Two days later, Federal Supreme Court minister Cristiano Zanin reestablished normality and returned freedom to the newspaper The State of S. Paul. This time it was quick, but in the past there have been more traumatic episodes that were more difficult to undo. In 2009, the newspaper The State of S. Paul was prohibited by the Court of Justice of the Federal District and Territories (TJDFT) from publishing information about the Operation Boi Barrica, a police investigation involving businessman Fernando Sarney, son of the former president José Sarney.

On that occasion, the censorship lasted more than 48 hours: it persisted for 3.327 days. Only in 2018 did the STF minister, Ricardo Lewandowski, overturned the measure. In the decision restoring rights, he recalled that, in a 2009 judgment, the STF guaranteed “full freedom of the press as a legal category prohibiting any type of prior censorship”. Ricardo Lewandowski remembered, but, to this day, many authorities forget.

Sometimes authorities neglect freedom. In a recent decision, with nine votes in favor and only two against, the ministers established that journalistic companies can be called upon to respond to statements made by interviewees, in an understanding that is not in line with the best Brazilian tradition. According to jurist Ronaldo Porto Macedo Junior, in an article in the newspaper The Globe, on December XNUMXst, was a “worrying and mistaken” decision.

It must be recognised, as some major Brazilian dailies have done, that professional journalism has the duty to assess, in its routine procedures, whether the statements of the people it interviews do not undermine the truth. But this stance is part of the profession's deontology, that is, it arises not from a state imposition, but from an autonomous, voluntary commitment, through which independent writing ensures the quality of what it delivers to the public and protects its own credibility. Good newsrooms act this way of their own volition, because they follow strict ethical canons.

Everything changes when a power external to the journalistic sphere, the Judiciary, takes upon itself the authority to hold a press organization responsible for statements made by third parties. The risk that arises is immense. How will small vehicles survive the avalanche of lawsuits that are sure to come? What should you do, for example, if, on a live radio station, an interviewee utters an untruth? Will the company have to pay for this? There are still unanswered questions.

In an article published in Folha de S. Paul On December 3, lawyer Taís Gasparian, one of the most respected experts on press freedom in Brazil, called the thesis embraced by the STF in this case “labyrinthine”. The adjective proceeds. From now on, along winding, treacherous and somewhat unpredictable paths, legal actions will come that, regardless of the result, will especially make small press organizations hell.

For these reasons, by giving general scope to a judgment that should be restricted to an isolated and atypical case, the STF opened a dangerous door. It's not about censorship, it's true, but this measure could provoke a wave of fear of self-censorship within newsrooms. To be seen.

* Eugene Bucci He is a professor at the School of Communications and Arts at USP. Author, among other books, of Uncertainty, an essay: how we think about the idea that disorients us (and orients the digital world) (authentic).

Originally published in the newspaper The State of S. Paul.


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