Brazil’s Proposed New Press Law Darkens Lula’s Presidency

  • Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is moving to enact a new press law calling for disturbing changes to the rules governing journalists that has some critics fearing a slow reversion to the era of dictatorship.
  • Recent shake-ups in the Brazilian Press Association would allow the already powerful unions CUT and Fenaj to merge to form a new body based on their own fused agendas.
  • This proposed new council is designed to accredit, regulate and censor all foreign and local journalists working in Brazil; it will have the power to impose penalties for violations and even ban journalists from practicing their profession altogether if the offense is serious enough.
  • Despite this controversial proposal, Lula’s current popularity among Brazilians remains high. But the embarrassing incident involving a New York Times reporter last May, which is believed to have sparked the new legislation, has led other news organizations and groups both at home and abroad to be skeptical of the government’s intent.

On August 5, 2004, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva proposed a new measure that, if enacted, is sure to change the face of journalism as it is now practiced in the country. Calling for the creation of a Federal Council of Journalism, the new legislation would, at least theoretically, severely restrict the rights of journalists operating in Brazil. Serious consequences could befall any journalist who did not comply with a strict set of rules put forth by the Council. Critics of the law feel that Lula, elected on a progressive platform calling for social reform, is now resorting to some of the same restrictive practices routinely used by his predecessors who ruled during the country’s bleak epoch of military rule, 1964-85.

CUT and Fenaj Step in to Take Control

Earlier in the year, the Brazilian Press Association (ABI), previously the governing body for Brazil’s journalistic profession, experienced some minor setbacks, enabling two other organizations to vie for–and ultimately gain–jurisdictional control. Taking advantage of a confused situation, these powerful labor and professional groups, the Central Workers’ Union Confederation (CUT) and the National Federation of Journalists (Fenaj), proposed the idea of the Federal Council of Journalism as a means to advance their own agendas, the most important being to dominate the field of journalism. CUT, one of Brazil’s most powerful blue collar unions, has been adamant about pursuing a platform of radical change and militancy regarding the media, and the new body is looked upon as being the most convenient vehicle by which it can achieve this goal.

A “Positive Agenda” for the Media?
Lula’s supporters insist that the proposal put forth to create this Federal Council would lead the media to adopt a “positive agenda” for covering news in Brazil. Labor Minister Ricardo Berzoini believes that the Council will “guide, discipline, and police” the field of journalism, because “currently, there isn’t an institution with legal capacity to regulate, police, and punish inadequate conduct by journalists.” Under the bylaws of the proposed Council, writers would have to first register with the new body in order to even practice journalism. Once registered, journalists would be held to a strict set of professional standards determining what they could and could not write; anything unflattering about the government, not supported by substantial evidence, could theoretically be considered off limits. Any journalist who violated these rules would be subject to penalties or even face being proscribed from writing in Brazil forever if the offense was considered egregious enough. Apparently, the government has overlooked that the mandatory licensing of journalists–as proposed by this new law–would violate the freedom of expression of the press, as guaranteed by the Inter-American Human Rights Court (of which Brazil is a member) in 1985.

Making New Enemies

While Lula’s approval rating still remains high in Brazil, due in part to a series of popular new agricultural reforms and sustained economic growth, his standing in some parts of the international community is less so. Trouble first arose in May, when New York Times reporter Larry Rohter published an article entitled “Brazilian leader’s tippling becomes national concern.” The article, detailing the President’s supposed drinking problem and accompanied by a picture of him at a beer festival, caused Lula’s representatives to immediately issue a statement insisting that the President’s social habits were moderate and comparable to those of Brazilians in general. Two days later, the president ordered that Rohter be expelled from the country. Despite the urgings of a number of Brazilian senators to reconsider what they viewed as a rash decision, Lula held firm. He reversed his decision only after Rohter sent a letter which presidential advisors interpreted as being apologetic. This incident, believed to have triggered Lula’s desire to form the Council, drew sharp international criticism. Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, said that if Brazil ”intends to expel a journalist for writing an article that offended the president, that would raise serious questions about Brazil’s professed commitment to freedom of expression and a free press.” Rohter’s offending Times piece was not the only negative press concerning the Brazilian leader that sprang from the incident–Lula’s angry response to those in the field of journalism who he thought belittled him, while understandable, was perhaps at the same time even more damaging to his international reputation.

The Enemy Strikes Back

On September 6, 2004, Rohter published another article in the Times that greatly upset Brazilian officials. The offending story accused Lula of being the sole author of the proposal calling for the creation of the Federal Council of Journalism. Rohter’s article again prompted a swift response from the Brazilian government, this time by press secretary Ricardo Kotscho. Two days after the needling article was published, Kotscho sent a letter to the editor of the New York Times defending the President and scolding Rohter for again misleading readers. According to the letter, the idea for the creation of the council came from the Labor Ministry, not from the President, and was requested by Fenaj. The article, in the words of Kotscho, “not only mislead the reader about the true objectives of the project but it also does not mention Fenaj.” Lula’s political associates are clearly intent on defending their image as quickly and thoroughly as possible, especially when the government’s image is being tarnished by as formidable a foe as the Times and Rohter.

Straying Away from Democracy

More and more reports of corruption within Lula’s administration have surfaced throughout the year, leaving many skeptical over the exact motivation behind this proposed new law. Tax evasion, illegal banking, and shady real estate deals have recently been added to the list of problems sullying Lula’s cabinet. Adding leverage to Lula’s critics’ arguments is the fact that when his Workers’ Party was in the opposition, it regularly published documents filled with incriminating information about whatever “corrupt” government or officials were in power at the time. Opposition leaders are the first to accuse Lula of being hypocritical and exhibiting antidemocratic behavior, not to mention resorting to scare tactics as a way to back up his new press reform proposal. On a recent trip abroad, he even told journalists who didn’t support his plan that they were “really a bunch of cowards.” Not one journalist or major news organization in Brazil has backed the proposal. So much public outcry has been generated that, as of September 15, the government has decided to hold public hearings on the issue, a step seen by many as a means to save face.

As of now, it seems that Lula’s colleagues, at the urging of the CUT-Fenaj juggernaut, are going to keep pushing for the new press law until it is officially passed and the Federal Council of Journalism is established–no matter how unpopular the proposal turns out to be amongst the media and civil libertarians. Like all other hemispheric nations, Brazil is being called upon by individuals and groups associated with the press to respect the freedom of speech that has been guaranteed by the Inter-American Human Rights Court. Entering office with the promise to make Brazil even more of a bastion of democracy than he had found it, Lula’s recent actions in dealing with press issues may be steering him in the wrong direction. Once freedom of the press is being threatened, his critics reason, restrictions on other liberties and rights could be close behind.