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Brazil: ARTICLE 19 denounces attack on freedom of expression following imprisonment of journalist

Publisher Article 19
Publication Date 18 July 2013
Cite as Article 19, Brazil: ARTICLE 19 denounces attack on freedom of expression following imprisonment of journalist , 18 July 2013, available at: [accessed 24 October 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Journalist José Cristian Góes has been sentenced to seven months in prison for writing a fictional chronicle in May 2012 in Sergipe State, Brazil. The 4 July sentence is the result of a criminal case filed by the Vice President of the Court of Sergipe, Edson Ulisses de Mello.

In the chronicle, "Eu, o Coronel em mim" (I, the Colonel in me), the journalist and trade unionist writes in the first person about the disdain and contempt felt by an unnamed Colonel towards democratic concepts such as freedom of speech and expression, referring to a "jagunço das leis" (a hatchet man of the law). Despite never naming this character, Góes was accused of libel by Ulisses de Mello.

The sentence states that the article had a major impact, "offending the dignity and decorum of the Judge." In addition to this criminal case, there is still an ongoing civil case seeking compensation for moral damages.

In his defence, the journalist said that the text was inspired by a lecture he attended, in which a speaker referred to the existence of remnants of coronelismo[1] in the present day. Although surprised by the verdict, Góes is no stranger to this kind of judicial pressure, as he has already been taken to court eight times without ever having been found guilty. This, however, was the first lawsuit filed by a member of the judiciary.

The seven-month prison sentence will be changed to community service, but the journalist says he will appeal. The fact that the sentence may be changed to community service does not mitigate its negative impact. A criminal conviction does not only have personal consequences, it also carries a lasting stigma and has a chilling effect on freedom of expression. Góes also says he is considering leaving Sergipe for security reasons. "I know how things work in a small state such as mine, and I have two children. I'm afraid", Góes told ARTICLE 19. Furthermore, the journalist recognises the impact this decision may have in the long term, given that many of his colleagues have already revealed that they are afraid and this makes them careful about what they write and who they write about.

ARTICLE 19 calls for the immediate decriminalisation of libel, slander and defamation, both for factual statements and, particularly, for opinion pieces. ARTICLE 19 also refers to the current Brazilian Penal Code reform project which is pending in the Senate. If approved, the crime of defamation in Brazil could be punishable by at least two years imprisonment. International standards determine that restrictive measures against freedom of expression must be the least intrusive possible. This prison sentence is clearly a disproportionate to freedom of expression.

ARTICLE 19 draws attention to the increasingly frequent use of criminal measures against journalists and bloggers. The Brazilian judiciary has played an active part in the restriction of freedom of expression and censorship. Judicial decisions have become a sad reality in the lives of journalists, bloggers, activists and Internet user.

[1] Coronelismo is the name given to the classic system in which the control of patronage was centralised in the hands of a locally dominant oligarch known as a "coronel". It was particularly present under Brazil's Old Republic (1889-1930).

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