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Brazzil - Press - May 2004
 

Brazil's Lula from Victim to Villain

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had hinted what was
in store for the New York Times reporter who wrote about his
drinking habits. Before the expulsion announcement Lula had
said: "It's not for a president to respond to such a piece of
stupidity. It doesn't deserve a response, it deserves action."

Elma-Lia Nascimento


Brazzil

Picture Opposition and allies rallied behind Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva after the Sunday New York Times report about Lula's habit of drinking a little too much. This unanimity, however, had evaporated Tuesday night after the Brazilian government, through its Justice Ministry, announced that it was canceling the visa and expelling from Brazil Larry Rohter, the Times correspondent who wrote the critical piece.

Workers' Party (PT, President Lula's party) Representative Arlindo Chinaglia commented that there was no violation of the freedom of press since the Times can simply send another correspondent to Brazil. Chinaglia criticized the New York paper for standing by its reporter "even after the government and party leaders had reacted against this dishonest piece of writing."

"The government has the PT's total solidarity," declared the party's president, José Genoíno. "These are diplomatic procedures that any country might take."

Following the same line of thought another Representative from the Workers' Party, Paulo Delgado, called Larry Rohter a "typical persona non grata" and added: "The Presidency of the Republic belongs to all Brazilians and cannot be the object of unbecoming consideration by a foreigner who works in our country."

Delgado, who is a professor and sociologist from the state of Minas Gerais, stressed that in this case official notes of displeasure were not enough. He cited France's example to justify Brazil's behavior: "Last year, France, ended up forbidding the circulation of a British newspaper because it considered it an offense to the French people."

Dissention

Not every ally though was in tune with this message. Some fear that the retaliatory action by Brasília can convert the Times reporter from an unscrupulous and irresponsible reporter into a victim.

"I don't think this was a smart move," said Renato Casagrande, the leader of the PSB (Brazilian Socialist Party) in the House. "The decision will not be seen favorably by the international press. Whoever advised President Lula to cancel the reporter's visa gave him bad advice.

"The government exaggerated the dose. This is going to provoke a bad reaction and the measure was preposterous," added Júlio Delgado, leader from another allied party, the PPS (Popular Socialist Party).

For the ACE (Associação dos Correspondentes Estrangeiros—Foreign Correspondents Association), the expulsion of the Times' reporter is censorship and political persecution.

The president of that association, Verónica Goyzueta, condemned Lula's administration's action: "This decision by the Brazilian government is very sad and serious. We should expect a very negative reaction among correspondents and overseas."

The journalist promised that her association intends to stage protests in São Paulo and Rio. According to Goyzueta, there are more than 250 foreign correspondents working in Brazil today. The largest contingent of them, 150, is in Rio. Another 110 are based in São Paulo while only 15 are established in the capital Brasília.

Rohter, who is married to a Brazilian, was not in Brazil, but, according to his secretary, traveling throughout South America when the decision of his expulsion was announced. It wasn't clear if he would be allowed to reenter the country before packing his belongings.

"Our work situation becomes more complicated now," said the ACE's president. "This is a threat to the freedom of press, because if you write something that upsets the government you run the risk to be persecuted and retaliated with the loss of your visa."

For her it's regrettable that this decision was taken by a government which counts with several members and politicians who were persecuted and exiled during the military dictatorship who lasted from 1964 to 1985 in Brazil.

Writing at the Brazzil Forum, Brazilian Rene Hass, lamented the decision of his government: "I have to say that as a Brazilian I feel deeply ashamed of Brazil's decision to expel Mr. Rohter only because he wrote something which is untrue about our president Lula.

"Where has the freedom of speech in Brazil gone? Where has the freedom of the press in Brazil gone? Ironically, Lula's government's decision to expel Larry Rohter was based on a law that was passed during the dictatorship regime.

"Lula and many of the members of his government fought so much against the military regime and one of the things they always defended back in the early 80s was the freedom of speech which now they condemn.

And Hass concluded, "I feel sorry for such decision of expelling the journalist. Too bad for the government's image. Too bad for our country's image abroad."

Hint from Lula

According to the note from Brazil's Justice Ministry, the article by the Times correspondent "offended the honor of the President" and was "lightweight, lying and offensive to the honor of the President."

Lula himself had hinted what was in store for the American reporter before the expulsion announcement. "It's not for a president to respond to such a piece of stupidity. Certainly its author, who doesn't know me and who I don't know, must be more worried than I am. It doesn't deserve a response, it deserves action," Lula had told reporters earlier in the day.

The New York Times had said earlier that it stood by Rohter's story. Late Tuesday the newspaper posted this note on its website without calling any attention for it on the homepage:

"Brazil said on Tuesday that it would expel a New York Times correspondent who wrote on Sunday of publicly expressed concerns about the drinking habits of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

"Mr. Lula said the correspondent, Larry Rohter, chief of the Times's bureau in Rio de Janeiro, deserved to lose his visa, Reuters reported. The presidential palace has denied that Mr. Lula has a drinking problem.

The justice ministry announced that it would cancel Mr. Rohter's visa and said the article was "offensive to the honor of the president."

Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, said that if Brazil "intends to expel a journalist for writing an article that offended the president, that would raise serious questions about Brazil's professed commitment to freedom of expression and a free press."



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