Brazilian daily O Estado de S. Paulo and its website Estadão are approaching the 200th day of a court order banning them from publishing any information about legal matters involving businessman Fernando Sarney, the son of former President José Sarney, who is now president of the senate.
Their first six months of censorship under the July 31 order, which has set a dangerous press precedent for press freedom, was completed on February 1st. A black stripe on the site this Thursday tells that the paper has been under censorship for 194 days.
The federal supreme court took only three months to uphold the ban although it was the same supreme court which, on April 30 overturned a Draconian 1967 press law inherited from the 1964-85 military dictatorship. Its contradictory decision has been a disappointment for the news media.
It was as if a new censorship mechanism had to be introduced as soon as the hangover from the repressive past had been eliminated. O Estado de S. Paulo is the direct victim of this U-turn, but all the Brazilian media are likely to feel its effect.
What is there to stop other plaintiffs from obtaining bans on media coverage of their activities even if the information is of public interest? The threat will continue as long as the censorship imposed on O Estado de São Paulo has not been lifted and repudiated.
Both the form and substance of the order can be challenged:
– The censorship was imposed on O Estado de São Paulo for a different reason from the one originally cited by Sarney. The ban concerns a questionable real estate operation in which he is involved but he launched his action against the newspaper after it published details of phone tapping by the federal police concerning an unrelated matter.
– A week after the supreme court’s December 10 decision to uphold the ban, Sarney withdrew his action against O Estado de S. Paulo citing a desire not to endanger press freedom. In the absence of a plaintiff, there were no longer any grounds for censorship. Nonetheless, what the supreme court called the need to “protect dignity and honor” has taken precedence over the Brazilian public’s right to be informed.
– Finally, how is it possible to justify the fact that one news organization, and one alone, is forbidden to report facts which other news organizations are able to report and which are known to the public? The supreme court is supposed to interpret the law but it is hard not to suspect a politically-motivated decision.
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