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The conviction of a journalist sued by a Supreme Court judge poses risks for the press in Brazil | International

The journalist Rubens Valente, in an appearance in the Senate in 2017.
The journalist Rubens Valente, in an appearance in the Senate in 2017.Roque de Sá (Senate Agency)

investigative journalism book Bank Operationpublished in Brazil in 2014, has suddenly escalated to the top of the charts one of the best sellers after its author was convicted last Friday in a ruling that almost bankrupted him and made it extremely difficult for the volume to be reissued. Rubens Valente, one of the most relevant, award-winning and uncomfortable investigative journalists in Brazil, was ordered to pay 310,000 reais ($60,000) to a Supreme Court judge, Gilmar Mendes, for non-pecuniary damage. For the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji), the sentence “aggravates the risk situation that freedom of the press is experiencing in Brazil and involves censorship in different forms,” ​​according to its vice president, Katia Brembatti. Resources exhausted in Brazil, Abraji has brought the case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, based in Washington.

Professional colleagues and journalists’ unions quickly mobilized to help the reporter pay compensation for a court decision that none of the major Brazilian media has reported for days; Folha has done it this Wednesday. The campaign on social networks has worked and the convicted person has received enormous support in the form of donations. With that money, the journalist will give the judge what remains because he has already paid half of the compensation out of his pocket, which, as Valente explained, is equivalent to the assets accumulated during three decades in the trade.

Your book Bank Operation is a journalistic investigation into a scandal that rocked Brazil in the early 2000s. It is “the incredible story of how the banker Daniel Dantas escaped prison with the support of the Supreme Court, turned the case around, going from accused to accuser”, as indicated on the cover. Judge Mendes, the oldest of the 11 Supreme Court magistrates, is a secondary character in Valente’s story, which tells how in 72 hours the magistrate granted two habeas corpus the banker, so he was released. The judge of the highest court denounced the reporter for moral damages, accusing him of defaming him and distorting the facts, according to what he published at the time Folha.

In the first instance, the journalist was acquitted because the judge in the case did not find “false information or defamatory intent”, but the complainant, a Supreme Court magistrate, appealed and all the higher courts have agreed with him.

The effects of the ruling go beyond the personal case at a time when Brazilian democracy is subject to multiple tensions, including frequent clashes between the Government of Jair Bolsonaro and the Supreme Court.

The Brazilian Abraji has taken the case to the IACHR, together with Media Defense and Robert F Kennedy Human Rights, because she considers that there are various violations of the rights and guarantees of the accused, who did not give a statement or was questioned by any of the courts.

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The court decision was revealed on Friday by Public Agency, a donation-funded non-profit media outlet, to which Valente declared: “It is not necessary to go very far to understand the message sent by the Brazilian Judiciary in this decision, especially the Federal Supreme Court: there is a limit to journalism and the limit is to write critically about a member of the court. The effect is intangible, it is already in the minds of the journalists who cover the Judiciary and it spreads through the newsrooms in the form of self-censorship.” Brembatti says that the association he represents is also concerned about this self-censorship effect among those who cover issues related to Mendes or other highly influential judges.

The jurisprudence of the Mendes-Valente case has been used in at least 14 similar cases in recent times, according to the Abraji association.

The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism considers that the judicial decision, against which there is no longer any appeal in Brazil, “sets a dangerous precedent” due to the high amount, explains Brembatti, who adds: “Not even in cases where that there was abuse or error in the publications we see nothing similar.

Valente is a respected investigative reporter who, after decades at the Folha de S.Paulo newsroom, worked for the last two years at the news portal UOL. Just the day before the court ruling was known, he announced on Twitter that his stage there was ending, without further details.

The victory of the Supreme Court judge has a double aspect. The ruling establishes economic compensation and, in addition, the obligation that if Bank Operation is republished one day, the book must include the final sentence and the original complaint. It would involve adding so many pages to the text that in practice it minimizes the chances of this happening. That is why the demand has skyrocketed and paper copies are so coveted.

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