Brazilian Courts Seek to Hush Critics, Independent Media

Supreme Court ordered raids on homes of social-media users who accused it of corruption

By Paulo Trevisani and Luciana Magalhães

BRASÍLIA—Brazilian judges are ratcheting up a campaign against what they deem to be misleading press coverage and offensive social-media posts, raising concerns among free-speech advocates.

Following a Supreme Court order, police this week raided homes and seized documents and computers of several Facebook and Twitter users who had accused the court on social media of corruption and other crimes, according to press reports and some of the targeted people.

“Personally, I found the whole thing funny, but for the country, it was something completely out of proportion, showing that Brazil’s Supreme Court justices aren’t what the country needs,” said retired Gen. Paulo Chagas, one of seven people whose homes were raided.

“I think it was ridiculous to use the police to seize my computer, when what I think and what I say is on my blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and they’re all still online,” said Gen. Chagas in a telephone interview.

A day earlier, the same court justice who requested the raids, Alexandre de Moraes, ordered independent online magazine Crusoé to remove an article that he said wrongly implicated the court’s current president, Dias Toffoli, in a corruption case from years ago. On Thursday, Mr. de Moraes reversed his decision and allowed the article to run.

The Supreme Court, known as STF, said in a statement on Thursday that Mr. de Moraes issued the gag order because the article cited a court document he thought didn’t exist.

“Now, there is no doubt, the document exists, but it doesn’t indicate any wrongdoing by the STF’s president,” the statement quoted Mr. de Moraes as saying.

Messages seeking comments from Mr. Toffoli went unanswered.

The raids and move against the online magazine are part of a sealed investigation the STF launched earlier this year against what the court said was the spread of fake news and social-media posts about alleged court corruption and ties to drug-trafficking.

Separately, a federal court in São Paulo last week sentenced a comedian to jail for a video in which he cussed a member of Congress.

These actions have drawn criticism that judges are overstepping constitutional boundaries at a time when Latin America’s largest democracy has made a turn to the political right under President Jair Bolsonaro, a supporter of the 1964-85 military dictatorship that suppressed freedom of speech.

“We are going through a conservative wave that’s questioning even the most basic rights,” said Rubens Beçak, a law professor at the University of São Paulo.

Even though the Bolsonaro administration isn’t itself acting against free speech, its ascent to power after decades of center-leftist rule has fueled debate on a variety of issues, such as gay rights, Mr. Beçak added. “Freedom of speech is such a basic right, it shouldn’t even be necessary to discuss it.”

Local media published Mr. de Moraes’s order to carry out the raids on the homes of seven social-media users and close their accounts. The Wall Street Journal couldn’t determine whether the accounts were shut down.

One person named in the document, Isabella Trevisani, said in a video on Facebook that her home had just been raided and her computer taken away. “I won’t be intimidated,” she added, calling the raid “an arbitrary act of censorship.”

Ms. Trevisani, who last year ran for Congress as an ally of Mr. Bolsonaro but lost, didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.

The reported raids came in the wake of another high- profile case that critics say smack of outright censorship.

Crusoé on Monday said the Supreme Court ordered it to take down an article that linked Chief Justice Toffoli to Brazil’s sprawling graft investigation known as Car Wash. The article stopped short of accusing Mr. Toffoli of wrongdoing.

While the gag order was in place, Mr. Toffoli said he was wrongly accused of a crime. “If you publish a story calling somebody a criminal … and this is untrue, it must be taken down, period,” he said on Thursday.

A lawyer for the publication, André Marsiglia Santos, said that the court order amounted to a grave abuse and that its reversal was “an important victory for freedom of press.”

Crusoé, which republished the article on Friday, said it stands by its reporting.

Carlos Ayres Britto, a former court member, criticized the order to take down the article.

“It’s hard to understand the decision to remove the story from the internet,” Mr. Britto said in an interview, noting the court has in the past upheld freedom of press. Other media outlets in Brazil published the article in solidarity with Crusoé.

In a sign of the STF’s struggle to handle freedom of press cases in Brazil’s tense political climate, on Thursday the court also reversed its 2018 decision barring newspaper Folha de S. Paulo from interviewing

former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is in jail for corruption, an accusation he denies.

In lower courts, too, judges have been increasingly siding with people who accuse critics of libel, experts say.

Earlier this month, comedian Danilo Gentili was sentenced to seven months in jail by a federal judge in São Paulo for slandering Rep. Maria do Rosário in a video he posted in 2016. Under Brazilian law, the comedian only has to go to jail if he loses an appeal.

The video shows Mr. Gentili tearing a letter from prosecutors asking him to remove from his Twitter account posts which Ms. do Rosário found insulting. In the video, he makes offensive remarks about the congresswoman.

Human-rights activists criticized the decision as too harsh.

“Nobody should be sent to jail for saying something offensive,” said Maria Laura Canineu, a lawyer from the local chapter of Human Rights Watch.

Ms. Canineu said it is worrisome to see the STF act against press rights, as in the Crusoé magazine case. “It’s not only surprising, but alarming.”

Publicado originalmente em The Wall Street Journal.