Some Latin American Journalists Face a Muzzle

New law in Brazil allows judges to order jail for libel, impose severe fines on publications

For many Brazilian congressmen, Arnaldo Jabor's biting sarcasm last month was the last straw.

Mr. Jabor, a political commentator for TV Globo, likened Brazilian Congress to a "supermarket," where "a guy can arrive with a suitcase full of money" and buy "votes in exchange for favors."

The Congress, however, was not amused. Two days later, 264 of 513 members of the Chamber of Deputies (lower house) signed a petition to expedite a new press law that would allow judges to order jail time for journalists convicted of libel and defamation of character and fine their publications up to 20 percent of their annual revenues.

"We will not accept this kind of treatment from the Brazilian press," said Luis Eduardo Maglhaes, the president of the Chamber of Deputies. "We need a legal instrument that can repel those who attack us without proof, those who seek to denigrate the image of power."

Latin American trend?

Brazil's move is just the latest chapter in what has become a regional battle between politicians and reporters over the boundaries of freedom of the press.

Unlike during the military dictatorships of the 1960s, '70s, and early '80s, the issue is no longer censorship. Journalists are no longer routinely jailed, tortured, or killed in the new democracies.

With the advent of democracy in South America and a free press, the arguments are now over what constitutes legitimate criticism and what is fair punishment for journalists convicted of libel and defamation of character:

*In Argentina, President Carlos Sal Menem endorsed slander legislation that carries steep penalties after the press pried into alleged corruption among family members, his marital woes, and personal financial excesses. In his victory speech after reelection last year, he gloated that he was able to triumph "not only over the opposition but the press."

*Venezuela's Congress passed a press law that requires journalists to have university degrees and join the National Reporters' Guild, or face jail.

*In Uruguay, Federico and Carlos Fasano, the publisher and managing editor of the Montevideo daily La Repblica, were sentenced last month to two years in jail for "offending the honor of a foreign chief of state."

Accuracy a crime

In a series of articles, the Fasano brothers had reported that Paraguayan President Juan Carlos Wasmosy illicitly gained $29 million during the construction of the Itaip hydroelectric dam in the 1970s. A Uruguayan court judge ruled that regardless of the article's accuracy, its publication was still a crime.

To be sure, the Latin American press is more freewheeling than its North American counterpart. Reporters tend to make more errors, headlines border on the sensational, personal opinions are often thrown into news stories, and individuals who have been unjustly accused are rarely given the chance to respond.

"We want journalists to be responsible when using such a powerful institution," says Brazilian Congressman Hlio Rosas, who says the press bill is needed to stop "unjust" attacks by the media on both public officials and private individuals. "Defaming someone's honor is a terrible thing."

Many Brazilian journalists, however, don't buy that argument. They say the press law - which was first introduced in 1991 and has been approved by the Senate - is merely a reprisal for their vigorous investigations and is aimed at putting them out of business.

"A fine like that would close down any company, not just a newspaper," says Paulo Cabral, president of the National Association of Newspapers.

Brazilian journalism is undoubtedly South America's most aggressive. In recent years, the media have reported on banking scandals, environmental abuses, massacres of Amazon Indians, murders of street children, and even corruption charges levied against a standing president. In 1992, such investigations led to the impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello.

The Congress, however, may well be its favorite target. In 1994, "budgetgate" revealed that 18 congressmen had pocketed $200 million in federal grants to charities. In recent months, the media have focused on chronic absenteeism, public monies being spent to install Jacuzzis in legislators' apartments, and the power of the some 30 congressional interest blocs - such as rural landowners, construction firm owners, and bankers - that vote not by ideology or party loyalty but by personal interest.

In the meantime, Vilmar Rocha, the congressman in charge of passing the press law, says he plans to introduce an amendment that would reduce the libel penalties to community service and fines of no more than $60,000.

"No one should be jailed for expressing an opinion," he says. "And indemnization shouldn't be symbolic, but neither should it bankrupt a newspaper."

Like dictators?

Yet if Mr. Rocha doesn't persuade his colleagues to accept the changes, some observers here believe the press law will damage even further the Congress' reputation. "It would make them look too much like the dictatorships of the past," Mr. Sodre says.

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