A Unesco report warns about the misuse of the judicial system as a tool to attack freedom of expression, a global movement that mainly affects journalists. Often based on imprecise legal definitions, this type of action has an effect that the study authors describe as inhibiting.
International law prescribes that criminal sanctions in the field of expression should be applied as a last resort, but Unesco’s findings point to a global wave of lawsuits with journalists as the main target —in general, disproportionately and in response to the production of content criticism of public actors and institutions.
Among the main criminal charges against press professionals is defamation, defined in the document as “a false statement that unfairly causes damage to the reputation of an individual or legal entity.” Typification varies from country to country, but “continues to be used to intimidate and suppress [liberdade de] expression in all regions, along with disproportionate civil damages and vexing litigation, among other challenges”, says Unesco.
The purpose of protecting reputations from the effects of a false declaration is legitimate, but when enacted into law it can violate values set forth in widely recognized international conventions, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and defended by entities multilateral organizations such as the UN, OECD and OAS.
At a regional level, the Unesco report cites cases of judicialization of expression in Europe, Africa and the Americas. The most recent example is that of two Costa Rican journalists —Ronald Moya Chacón and Freddy Parrales Chaves— who were prosecuted at civil and criminal levels as a result of a 2005 report that denounced police leaders for facilitating the trafficking of alcoholic beverages. In September of this year, the International Court of Human Rights asked for the annulment of the sentence and concluded that the Costa Rican justice imposed intimidating measures on both.
The Unesco report also cites the annual survey by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which counted 294 journalists arrested. The accusations vary, but among the main typifications is defamation. The figure includes a case from Brazil, concerning the arrest of Paulo Cezar de Andrade Prado, founder of Blog do Paulinho.
The authors also draw attention to the practice of what in Brazil is conventionally called judicial harassment. It includes, for example, the opening of actions that, even without the real objective of winning the dispute, fulfill the function of intimidating and silencing the accused. There are cases in which multiple actions with the same purpose are filed in different courts, causing a kind of curtailment of the target of the process, aggravated by the financial cost of the defenses and even by the impracticable geographical displacement to attend to all the summons of the Justice.
Although not mentioned directly by Unesco, Brazil has emblematic cases in this regard, such as that of reporter Elvira Lobato, who, due to a report on the business branches of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, published in 2008 in Sheetwas the target of more than one hundred lawsuits in small towns across the country —the lawsuits, all won by the newspaper, were filed by believers and did not contest the veracity of any information, but claimed moral damages for alleged attacks on faith.
More recently, in 2020, writer João Paulo Cuenca was sued by dozens of pastors of the same denomination after a Twitter post.
Unesco also recommends that there be a closer look at gender issues, in particular the fact that women journalists are more frequent targets of attacks that go beyond their professional activities and seek to reach them on a personal level. Recent examples of this phenomenon include the Special Reporter of the Sheet Patrícia Campos Mello and Vera Magalhães, presenter of TV Cultura and columnist for the newspaper O Globo.
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