Brazilian Justice Can’t Tell News Reporting from Propaganda

Brazilian newspaper Agosto A Brazilian court fined the newspaper Agosto, on June 5, US$ 13,400 for publishing summaries of São Paulo mayoral candidates for the upcoming elections as well as an interview with one of the candidates, the first in a series.

An electoral judge issued a provisional decision ordering the seizure of all copies of the newspaper and its removal from the Internet. The newspaper's director, as well as the NGO which publishes it and the candidate who gave the interview, were all fined a similar amount.

Agosto is published by the NGO Amarribo, a partner of Article 19 which promotes civil society participation in public matters and transparency in local government in Ribeirão Bonito, in the interior of São Paulo.

This is not an isolated case. Two major media outlets in Brazil, the weekly magazine Veja and daily Folha de S. Paulo, were recently fined for publishing interviews with Marta Suplicy, a candidate for mayor of São Paulo. The candidate was also fined.

Another national newspaper, O Estado de S. Paulo, received a complaint for interviewing the incumbent mayor in São Paulo. Local newspapers in the interior of the country have faced similar restrictions.

These cases are based on Brazilian electoral legislation, which forbids any "electoral propaganda" before 6 July 2008, when the campaign period officially starts, as well as a resolution by the Superior Electoral Court, according to which "pre-candidates can participate in interviews, debates and meetings before 6 July 2008, as long as they do not express any campaign proposals."

Article 19, a UK-based freedom of information organization, released a note calling on Brazilian electoral judges to stop imposing sanctions for reporting on the municipal elections scheduled for October 2008.

In a series of recent decisions, electoral judges have punished print media outlets for publishing interviews with candidates for the October elections. These decisions violate the right to freedom of expression, guaranteed in the Brazilian Constitution and in international law.

"The press plays a vital role in informing the public about elections, making sure that citizens understand the position of candidates and parties. Prohibiting the publication of interviews with political candidates undermines the ability of the public to make informed electoral choices, damaging democracy as a whole", said Dr. Agnès Callamard, Executive Director of Article 19.

Article 19 says that it believes that interviews with politicians which aim at informing the public should not be considered electoral propaganda, particularly if they are presented in a balanced and informative way which assists citizens to make informed electoral choices.

Such reporting should be considered core political speech, which is central to the conduct of free and fair elections. The notion of electoral propaganda should be restricted to material which specifically aims to convince the public to vote for a particular candidate.

These decisions have generated strong criticism in Brazil. The Movement for a Democratic Public Prosecutor's Office issued a public note stating that "newspapers and magazines can and should interview people, be they candidates or not, during any period of time, before, during and after the elections.

"In doing so they contribute to strengthening citizenship and bringing life to the fundamental right to information." In recent declarations to the Brazilian press, the presidents of the Supreme Court and the Superior Electoral Court have both supported the right of the press to inform the public without undue restriction.

Article 19 – www.article19.org

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