NYT Journalist Convicted in Brazil of Offending Brazilians, Ordered to Pay Compensation

Joe Sharkey American journalist Joe Sharkey, one of the occupants of the Legacy executive jet that collided with the Boeing 737 from Gol airline in 2006 killing the 154 people aboard, was sentenced to recant publicly before the Brazilian people and to pay compensation amounting to 50,000 reais (US$ 26,882) to the wife of a man who died in the accident.

The ruling was made by Judge José Augusto Gomes Aniceto, from the 9th Civil Chamber of Paraná state’s Justice Court. He considered that lawsuit as unfounded, but since the magistrates Sergio Luiz  Patitucci and Rosana Fachin had already voted for conviction, there was no change in the penalty.

According to the decision, Sharkey offended Brazilians with texts published on his blog, criticizing the media and the courts of the country. The lawsuit was brought by Rosane Gutjahr, president of the Association of Relatives and Friends of Victims of Flight 1907, with the intention of making the American recant.

She stressed that the compensation money will be donated to the Association of Friends of the Hospital de Clínicas in Curitiba. Gutjahr, from the state of Paraná, is the widow of a man killed in the accident.

“It’s an absurd for him [Sharkey] to try to blame the authorities and the Brazilian media for errors that the US pilots committed and that led to the deaths of 154 people,” Gutjahr stated.

Sharkey has 15 days to appeal the Brazilian justice’s decision. Writing in his blog on November 17, the American journalist stated:

“In what is clearly a brazen challenge to American law that protects U.S. citizens from foreign defamation judgments in foreign verdicts that are a clear affront to the First Amendment and U.S. free speech protections, a Brazilian court today found me guilty in a defamation case brought by a Brazilian woman I had never heard of, nor written a single word about.

“Today’s court decision overturned an earlier one that had dismissed the case against me, saying the plaintiff had no ground to sue because I had never written or said a single word about her. Two of the three-judge panel decided against me. The third judge said he’s still studying the papers, and will make his decision known by Dec. 1, but even if he sided with me that would still make the verdict stand at 2-1.

“The lawsuit makes preposterous allegations, including an astonishing one that actually suggests that I was on board the Legacy business jet, which collided at 37,000 feet over the Amazon with a Brazilian airliner, as a participant in a nebulous plot to claim the Amazon rain forest for unspecified imperial interests.

“In the collision, on Sept. 29, 2006, 154 people on the Brazilian 737 died in a horrifying plunge to the jungle, while seven men on the business jet that collided with it, including me, survived after a harrowing 25-minute flight in a severely damaged airplane that, at the last minute before crashing itself into the jungle, managed an emergency landing at a jungle airstrip.

“The other allegations in the suit are also outright fabrications, cooked up in an attempt to cover up official malfeasance in crash aftermath, to discredit me for accurate reporting and commentary on the disgraceful official Brazilian handling of the accident, and to inhibit me from doing further reporting and commentary in the United States.

“As I reported here soon after the crash, the Brazilian authorities – cheered on by a xenophobic media that was aflame with anti-Americanism – had rushed recklessly to criminalize the accident and scapegoat the American pilots, long before the facts were known.

“Severe problems in the military-run Brazilian air traffic control system, widely known before the crash, were covered over by authorities. However, an investigation by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board concluded that, as I also had been reporting, systemic and operational faults by Brazilian air traffic control were likely the primary cause of the disaster. (The N.T.S.B. was involved in the investigation in Brazil because one of the planes, the Boeing 737, was American-made. The Legacy was made by the Brazilian manufacturer Embraer.)

“The lawsuit – which accuses me of causing “dishonor” to the entire nation of Brazil – was based on the remarkable legal assertion that the plaintiff, as a Brazilian citizen, suffered an insult to her honor because of my reporting – even though she was never mentioned in any way. Among the odd things that I am falsely accused of writing – as an insult to the honor of all Brazilians, according to the suit – is that “Brazil is most idiot of idiots.”

“That and other fabricated comments attributed to me in the suit were mostly culled, in fact, from comments appended to, or linked from, various Web sites in Brazilian media in which anonymous Brazilians ranted about me and even, in some cases, about Brazilian authorities for the disgraceful way they handled the aftermath of the crash. Ultimately such online mayhem melds into a rat’s-nest of bewildering hyperlinks, with lots of side trips down links that can lead to Crazy Lane.

“But even if I forgotten basic grammatical elements of my native tongue and had written that Brazil is “most idiot of idiots,” that would not be remotely actionable in any country with any respect for free speech – and certainly not under U.S. law.”

The accident

The flight 1907 from Gol airline, which was going from Manaus to Rio de Janeiro, with a stop in Brazilian capital Brasília, crashed in northern Mato Grosso state, September 29, 2006, killing all 148 passengers and six crew members.

The accident occurred after a collision with a Legacy executive jet manufactured by Brazilian company Embraer, which landed safely at an airbase in southern Pará state.

The pilots of the Legacy, Joseph Lepore and Jan Paul Paladino, both from the United States, are accused of not having turned on the Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), equipment necessary for contact between the aircraft and the air traffic towers.

The complaint presented by Brazil’s Federal Public Ministry, in May 2007, reports that the Boeing’s transponder remained on throughout the flight, while the Legacy equipment was turned off during the flight.

The transponder is a device that interacts with the secondary air control radars and other transponders, providing information about the position and movement of the aircraft.

In the sequence of errors that caused the accident there was also a miscommunication between controllers and pilots of the Brazilian jet, who, not understanding the instructions, would have flown the aircraft at the same altitude of the Gol’s plane, 37 000 feet.

In May 2007, pilots and four flight controllers has been charged by federal prosecutors for the crime of endangering the security of Brazil’s air transportation. In December 2008, the Americans were acquitted of the negligence charges, but in 2010 the court overturned the acquittal and ordered the resumption of the trial.

In May 2011, they were sentenced by the justice of Mato Grosso to four years and four months in semi-open prison for exposing an aircraft to danger with the aggravating factor that such act resulted in death. The penalty, however, was converted to community service to be done in the United States and the pilots were forbidden from practicing their profession.

In 2008, flight controllers Leandro José Santos de Barros and Felipe Santos dos Reis were summarily acquitted of all charges by the Federal Court. Jomarcelo Fernandes dos Santos was also acquitted of the crime in May 2011. In the same decision, the court of Mato Grosso sentenced Lucivando Tibúrcio de Alencar to community service for endangering the safety of air transportation.

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