International human rights organization Article 19 has strongly condemned the wave of civil defamation lawsuits filed by members of Brazil's Universal Church of the Kingdom of God against journalist Elvira Lobato and her employer, the largest Brazilian daily, Folha de S. Paulo.
By 30 January 2008, pastors and individual members of the evangelical Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (IURD) had filed more than 35 separate lawsuits against the journalist and the newspaper, in 16 different states and more than 30 towns in Brazil, Folha de S. Paulo informed.
The members of the church argue in the lawsuits that they felt offended by an article published by Folha on December 15, 2007. In the article, Lobato reported on the various acquisitions of the church over the past three decades, including 23 TV stations, 40 radio stations, and at least 19 companies registered under the names of church members and bishops. The article also reported that contributions by church members might have been sent to tax havens outside of Brazil.
According to Orlando Molina, Folha's Legal Director, the 35 lawsuits are practically identical, containing the same arguments and quotations. "I have no doubt that this is a coordinated action, since the lawsuits are identical and they chose cities all over the country, from Acre (in the North) to Rio Grande do Sul (in the South), which makes our defense much more difficult", he told Article 19.
All the lawsuits have been filed in distant, small towns, far away from the state capitals. Elvira Lobato may have to go personally to more than 30 towns where she has been sued, which will seriously interfere with her personal and professional life. For instance, on 14 February 2008, the journalist would have to attend hearings in four different towns in the interior of four different states.
According to Folha's Legal Director, the newspaper has found out that some of the lawyers representing followers of the church in these lawsuits also represent the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in other cases.
In the first judicial decision involving these cases, Judge Alessandro Leite Pereira, from Bataguaçu, a small town in the interior of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, convicted a church member for acting in bad faith in the litigation.
According to the judge, the lawsuit distorted the content of the article with the intention of "unduly seeking to receive reparation." The judge also stated that "the Judiciary is being used by the authors of the lawsuits with the illegitimate intention of damaging the defendant."
Article 19 has said that it strictly condemns the attempt to use the Judiciary and defamation to intimidate and silence, and commends Judge Alessandro Leite Pereira for his ruling. That organization recommends that all other lawsuits filed by members of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God against journalist Elvira Lobato and the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo be treated in the same fashion throughout the country.
The wave of lawsuits is seen as an attempt to intimidate journalist Elvira Lobato and the newspaper Folha, and through them, the journalist profession and the media in Brazil. The lawsuits are also seeking to prevent open public debate on issues of public interest, and are thus abusing the right of the people of Brazil to access information.
Article 19 is an independent human rights organization that works globally to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression. It takes its name from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees free speech.