Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Expands Expression
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In 2008, a Brazilian federal prosecutor brought an action against Abril Group media company following a news report about his alleged involvement in smuggling natural resources from indigenous lands.
After the dismissal of the lawsuit by the lower court, the Court of Appeals of the State of Rondônia entered monetary award in the amount of BRL 35,000 (approximately $100,000) in favor of the prosecutor and ordered the decision to be published in Abril’s own weekly news magazine, Veja. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Brazil upheld the monetary award based on the lower court’s findings that the impugned article was untruthful. It, however, reversed the publication order because it was made pursuant to Article 75 of the Federal Press Act, which was previously found unconstitutional by the Court in 2009.
In May 2008, the plaintiff – a federal prosecutor named Reginaldo Pereira da Trindade – filed an individual indemnity claim against Abril publishing company. Abril allegedly published a false news report, claiming that the indigenous tribe Cinta Larga had kidnapped a group of people, including the plaintiff. The news report also claimed that the plaintiff was involved in the illegal smuggling of wood and diamonds from indigenous lands. The plaintiff sought compensatory damages under Article 944 of the Brazilian Civil Code. He also asked the court judgment to be published by Veja magazine under Article 75 of the Press Act, a federal law that was repealed by the Supreme Court of Brazil in 2009. ((See Global Freedom of Expression, Brazil: New Law on the Right of Reply Puts News Entities at Risk (November 2015), https://columbiagfoe.wpengine.com/updates/2015/11/right-of-reply-in-brazil-new-law-undermines-medias-right-of-defense/.))
Subsequently, the lower court dismissed plaintiff’s claim, ordering him to pay Abril’s attorney fees. However, the Court of Appeals of the State of Rondônia granted the plaintiff’s appeal and ordered Abril to pay BRL 35000 (approximately $100,000) in monetary damages and to publish the court’s decision.
Abril then appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Brazil, arguing that the news report was truthful and that the appellate court failed to take into account the evidence that substantiated the article’s truthfulness. Abril also argued that the publication order of the appellate court must be dismissed pursuant to the Supreme Court 2009 decision in ADPF 130/DF that had found the Federal Press Act.
On November 3, 2015, Justice Villas Boas Cueva delivered the opinion of Court, upholding the award of monetary damages and overruling the compelled publication order.
Justice Cueva stated that media outlets have a strong ethical duty to publish truthful information and to report responsibility with respect to the subjects of the story. According to him, public figures are more accountable for their actions and are subject to public scrutiny and therefore, those who report false news about public officials must also be held to a higher standard. Here, evidence analyzed by the lower court showed that the news report was false and offensive and that the monetary award in the amount of BRL 35,000.00 was appropriate.
As to the appellate court’s order of publishing the decision, Justice Cueva held that Abril could not be compelled to publish it in a future edition of Veja because the Article 75 of the Press Act, pursuant to which such order could be granted, was found unconstitutional by the Court in 2009. Justice Cueva also noted the publication could not be inferred by any interpretation of the Full Compensation Doctrine of Article 944 of the Civil Code.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
This decision created precedent for controversies regarding the press. The case reinforces the ethical duty of the press to rely on credible sources. It also reaffirmed that Article 75 of the Press Act is unconstitutional and thus, it does not apply as a measure to compensate any harm caused by media outlets.
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