In 2009, the Brazilian government decided to discard the Brazilian Press Law (Lei de Imprensa), in favour of allowing newspapers to self-regulate. The Press Law, a restrictive, heavy-handed piece of legislation, had been implemented in 1967, in the lead up to what would be the most violent and authoritarian phase of the military dictatorship in Brazil.
Some of the provisions in the act determined publishing content that “offended decency and good customs” was illegal, as well as criticism of the government, banks, and other financial institutions.
The act was a compilation of Brazilian criminal and civil laws, but the punishment for journalists was significantly more severe than for other citizens. The idea behind it was to hinder freedom of the press, and freedom of expression, and to weaken the power journalists had to expose human rights abuses perpetrated by the military.
Sadly, when Brazil gained a new constitution in 1988, three years after the end of the dictatorship, there Press Act survived – until 30 April 2009, when it was scrapped by the Government, 25 years after the military coup took place.
Despite the act very rarely being enforced after 1985, all journalists who worked in Brazil from 1967 until 2009 were subject to it. That has led to cases such as that of journalist Alvanir Ferreira Avelino, 51, who was arrested at home in 2003, for committing a “crime of opinion” as defined in the act.
Avelino had criticised a sentences passed by judge Alexandre de Carvalho Mesquita in editorials published on his newspaper “O Miracemense”, based in the north of the state of Rio de Janeiro, between 1998 and 1999.
The judge took offence to Avelino’s comments and the journalist was convicted and sentenced to 10 months and 15 days in prison.
The repealing of the act by Brazilian politicians was a great step towards press freedom. Attempts to implement a new regulatory law for the media were criticised by newspapers, who have launched in 2011 a self-regulation programme for all members of the Brazilian National Newspaper Association (ANJ).
Newspapers affiliated to the ANJ are now implementing their own complaints’ mechanisms. According to a survey of the Association’s 154 members:
- 100 per cent have an official “channel” to communicate with readers, similar to a customer services phone line.
- 62 per cent of the newspapers publish readers’ letters.
- 32 per cent publish apologies and corrections.
- 17 per cent have a code of ethics and style guide.
- 16 per cent have their own editors’ committee.
- 10 per cent reserve space for editorials in print and online.
- 6 per cent have created readers’ committees.
- 3 newspapers have an Ombudsman.
Editors, media commentators and a few politicians have been speaking out in favour of self-regulation for the past couple of years, and for restrictions on the right of reply, currently set out in statute. All newspapers under the ANJ are currently working to implement and improve the self-regulation programme.
For a country like Brazil, giving newspapers the right to self-regulate is a victory for freedom of the press. The scrapping of the Press Law will diminish the chilling effect on journalists uncovering corruption and abuses of power in the executive, judiciary and other authorities.
Journalists are still subject to criminal and civil laws, but they are now free to publish opinion and work on exposes of politicians and others without fear of retaliation backed by law. Hopefully, newspapers will continue to work towards implementing a system that allows them the freedom they should have, but where the readers still matter, and publishers are still accountable.
The next step and biggest challenge for the Brazilian press will now be to stop the violence and abuse directed at their journalists on a daily basis.
Thais Portilho-Shrimpton is a journalist and campaigner. She is the Director of Justice Across Borders.