The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) has urged Brazil’s Federal Supreme Court to review its decision that resulted in the ongoing censorship of investigative reports that might expose wrongdoing in the Federal Senate.
IAPA stated that “transparency and the distribution of information of public interest are indispensable to strengthen press freedom and democracy.”
On December 10th Brazil’s highest court dismissed an appeal by the São Paulo newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, thus upholding the July 31st order by a federal court in Brasília that banned reporting the newspaper's legally-obtained information on Federal Police investigations into alleged corruption involving businessman Fernando Sarney, son of federal senator and former Brazilian president José Sarney. The censorship order was valid only for O Estado de S.Paulo.
Jose Sarney has held the crucial post of president of the Brazilian Senate for several years and under Brazilian law he manages the Upper House agenda that has turned him into an indispensable ally for President Lula da Silva who needs his willingness and votes to have bills passed.
Sarney is one of the leaders of the centre rights PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement party) and according to revelations in the press, together with his family, has allegedly been involved in many acts of corruption and abuse. The seriousness and extension of the excesses are believed to have significantly tarnished the standing of the Brazilian senate and image of the political system. Senator Sarney was furious with the revelations and “the press interference with his and his family’s privacy”.
Furthermore Lula da Silva had serious difficulties in convincing his Senators not to vote an investigation committee on Senator Sarney’s actions, which he finally managed thus ensuring the passage of several key legislation including the incorporation of Venezuela to Mercosur which had been stalled since 2006. Sarney remains one of the harshest critics of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and his “Socialist XXI model”, but earlier this month allowed an approval vote on the issue.
Moreover Lula da Silva and Sarney are working on a combined presidential ticket for 2010 with PMDB filling the vice-president slate, thus ensuring (hopefully) a working majority in the Upper House following October’s presidential election.
Given the political background according to Brazilian political analysts it should not come as a surprise that Brazil's highest court, limited its decision to technicalities rather than to a consideration of the merit of the censorship imposed on O Estado de S.Paulo when it argued that the Brasilia District Court decision was based on the Telephone Wiretap Law, not on the argument behind the STF's April ruling that the Press Law was unconstitutional.
The matter became even more evident when it was made public that the judge who issued the original gag order, Dácio Vieira, may have a conflict of interests due to his past work as a Senate adviser and personal friendship with the Sarney family.
On September 15th O Estado de S. Paulo won a case removing the judge but two weeks later the same court declared itself without authority so the gag order remained in force. These facts along with the entire process has been criticized by the Brazilian media and was included in the IAPA report on the state of the Brazilian press approved at its General Assembly in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in early November.
IAPA President Alejandro Aguirre, managing editor of the Miami, Florida, Spanish-language newspaper Diario Las Américas, signalled his regret that “the Brazilian justice system continues its tradition of ordering prior censorship when, in fact, what is needed in cases of public interest such as this is to encourage the dissemination of news reports which by their very nature could have an effect on public affairs and therefore on all citizens.”
Robert Rivard, chairman of the IAPA’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, editor of the San Antonio Express-News, Texas, added, “We regret the decision of Brazil’s highest court and we issue a call for its reconsideration so that Brazilian people may regain their right to be informed without censorship.”
Aguirre and Rivard coincided that the Federal High Court should back up its conviction that transparency is the best antidote to corruption and the best means of strengthening democracy, rather than issue orders that breach international standards of freedom of expression.