Reporters Without Borders today condemned the “harassment” of three journalists and their newspapers by followers of the Brazil-based evangelical Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus – IURD), who have filed dozens of lawsuits against the media.
The daily paper A Folha de SÃ£o Paulo and one of its reporters, Elvira Lobato, is facing about 50 individual suits filed in more than 20 of the country’s states after she wrote about the church’s finances. The Rio de Janeiro daily Extra and its editor, Bruno Thys, and the Salvador de Bahia (northeastern Brazil) daily A Tarde and one of its reporters, Valmar Hupsel Filho, have had 40 suits filed against them for reporting that a IURD member defiled a Catholic religious image.
“Press freedom allows anyone to respond to what they consider defamation, but such a concerted legal campaign is different from normal defence,” the organisation said. “Why has the IURD not filed a single lawsuit against each paper? The mass individual litigation looks like concerted harassment of the media. A religious argument is also not valid in the suit against A Folha de SÃ£o Paulo. We declare our support for the three newspapers.”
Lobato reported in A Folha de SÃ£o Paulo last 15 December about the hugely-wealthy IURD’s links with tax havens. She did not name any church member or discuss its doctrines. But some 50 IURD members said their religious beliefs were “insulted” and each filed a lawsuit. The paper says the scattering of the cases over many states all at the same time makes an effective defence impossible. The judiciary has rejected the papers’ request for the suits to be merged into one. However Lobato and A Folha have already won five of the cases.
The 35 complaints filed against A Tarde and Hupsel Filho and the five against Thys and Extra follow reports in the two papers last December of the defiling of a Catholic image in a Salvador de Bahia church. The IURD says the reports amounted to “incitement to hatred” of its followers. The IURD TV station TV Record attacked the daily O Globo this month (17 February) for calling the IURD a sect. The station screened a photo of Lobato.
Brazilian journalists have backed the three papers. President Luiz InÃ¡cio Lula da Silva said on 19 February that “press freedom means the press can write what it likes but also allows those who think they have been wronged to take legal action to prove their innocence.”
Reporters Without Borders defends imprisoned journalists and press freedom throughout the world. It has nine national sections (Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland). It has representatives in Bangkok, London, New York, Tokyo and Washington. And it has more than 120 correspondents worldwide.