Brazil’s Supreme Court Strikes Down Censorship of Petrobras Corruption
On September 17, the Brazilian Federal Supreme Court (STF) overruled a Fortaleza judge who had ordered the weekly magazine IstoÉ be taken off the shelves, because it contained information tying Ceará’s governor, Cid Gómes, to a money-laundering scheme at the state oil company Petrobras.
Publishing house Editorial Tres appealed the decision and Supreme Court Judge Luís Roberto Barroso ruled the lower court’s act of censorship unconstitutional.
Governor Cid Gómes originally filed the lawsuit in Fortaleza on September 14 in an attempt to prevent the IstoÉ report from being released. Reporters for the magazine attempted to contact the governor for comment regarding accusations of his involvement in the misappropriation of public funds in the Petrobras scandal that has rocked Brazil’s presidential election.
Before Barroso stepped in to overturn the decision, Fortaleza Judge María Maciel Queiroz had determined that the magazine’s weekly edition could not be distributed, and that copies which had already left the company’s warehouses has to be recalled.
Queiroz’s censorship ruling also included a R$5 million (US$2.12 million) fine if the publishing house decided to go ahead with the issue’s release.
Reputation at Stake
Queiroz ruled in favor of Gómes, seeking to uphold the governor’s reputation, which found itself in “imminent danger” in the face of an ongoing investigation into the Petrobras affair.
The judge had ordered Editorial Tres to “abstain from revealing any news related to the plaintiff based on testimonies given by Paulo Roberto Costa (former Petrobras employee), or any other event related to the money-laundering scheme that could involve the plaintiff, Cid Gómes, directly or indirectly.”
In the lawsuit, Gómes’s lawyers argued that the Petrobras case was being investigated confidentially by state prosecutors, and that IstoÉ, “besides violating the plaintiff’s personal honor, was causing irreversible damage to his political career.”
Alexandre Fidalgo, the attorney representing the magazine, responded by saying that the issue not only involved a public figure but “the most important issue in national politics.”
“Freedom of speech is central to our political system, so every kind of censorship must be abolished at once,” he urged.
Fidalgo also recommended that instead of censorship, Gómes could ask the publication for an opportunity for rebuttal within the magazine, in order to repair the perceived damage.
Follow the Money
For over two weeks, federal police and prosecutors have been pouring over documents to tackle the country’s most important corruption case this year. Paul Roberto Costa, former manager of the state-owned oil company Petrobras, has been in prison since June pending a verdict in his case. He stands accused of money laundering and funneling US$23 million into secret bank accounts in Switzerland.
In an effort to reduce a potential 40-year sentence, he agreed to cooperate with police and provide the names of others involved in the scheme during his time as director of supply management at Petrobras between 2004 and 2013.
Costa has since named several politicians and firms that he claims received bribes of up to 3 percent of the value of the contracts signed between the oil company and contractors. Some of those names have included high-ranking officials of the Brazilian government, such as Mining and Energy Minister Edison Lobao, former Governors Sergio Cabral and Roseanna Sarney, and leaders of the ruling Workers’ Party, which is counting on a Dilma Rousseff reelection to remain in power.
The oil giant published a statement on its website on September 8 indicating it would not comment on individual accusations put forth through the media.
“The company is obeying all legal requirements and has presented all the information required by the Federal Police, Audit Court, Comptroller’s Office and federal prosecutors.”
The company added that it will continue to operate its business normally, since the “irregular acts that may have been committed by a person or group of persons, employees or not, do not represent the behavior of Petrobras as an institution run by thousands of employees.”
Censorship Draws International Condemnation
The Interamerican Press Association (SIP), representing over 1,300 outlets in the Western hemisphere, released a statement denouncing judge Queiroz’s decision in favor of Gómes’s lawsuit.
In his statement, Claudio Paolillo, president of SIP’s Free Press and Information Commission, condemned “the frequency with which Brazilian judges protect public officials from the media, and especially shield them from the constitutional precept that allows every Brazilian citizen to enjoy the right to receive and divulge information freely.”
Paolillo rebuked the governor’s claims of a right to protect his reputation and said “public officials are subject to a higher degree of scrutiny by the rest of society.”