Global Freedom of Expression

Sarney v. O Estado de São Paulo

In Progress Mixed Outcome

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Press / Newspapers
  • Date of Decision
    December 10, 2009
  • Outcome
    Dismissed, Access to Information Denied
  • Case Number
  • Region & Country
    Brazil, Latin-America and Caribbean
  • Judicial Body
    Supreme (court of final appeal)
  • Type of Law
    Civil Law, Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Access to Public Information, Content Regulation / Censorship, Press Freedom, Privacy, Data Protection and Retention, Surveillance
  • Tags
    Data Protection and Retention, Civil Defamation, Wiretapping

Content Attribution Policy

Global Freedom of Expression is an academic initiative and therefore, we encourage you to share and republish excerpts of our content so long as they are not used for commercial purposes and you respect the following policy:

  • Attribute Columbia Global Freedom of Expression as the source.
  • Link to the original URL of the specific case analysis, publication, update, blog or landing page of the down loadable content you are referencing.

Attribution, copyright, and license information for media used by Global Freedom of Expression is available on our Credits page.

Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

In July 2009, the Court of Appeals of Federal District issued an injunction against the daily newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo, banning it from publishing reports containing information from a corruption investigation involving businessman Fernando Sarney, son of former President José Sarney.

In December 2009, the Federal Supreme Court of Brazil denied an appeal brought by S.A. O Estado de São Paulo, the owner of the daily newspaper against the injunction. The Court also found that the previously granted procedural remedy was inappropriate because the case did not fall under its precedent established in ADPF 130-DF, where it had declared the Press Act unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals of the Federal District for further consideration in light of its ruling. The Court of Appeal’s final decision is currently pending.



On July 22, 2009, O Estado de São Paulo daily newspaper published an article linking Fernando Sarney to a political scandal, Senate Secret Acts (acts that had not been published by the official press). The newspaper reported that according to a phone tap obtained from an undercover criminal investigation, Mr. Sarney was influenced by the former head of the Senate Agaciel Maia to hire the boyfriend of his daughter who was named by the Senate Secret Act four days after the phone call.

On July 27, 2009, Sarney filed a lawsuit requesting an injunction to prevent the newspaper from publishing any information based on the criminal investigation. He argued that  any reporting would be a violation of a federal act that addresses crime within the judiciary, along with a claim that any reporting would be defamatory and be a violation of the right to privacy.

During the initial court proceedings, the Court of Appeals of Federal District overruled the injunction, highlighting the importance of the constitutionality-protected freedom of expression, particularly the right to access information, given the fact that the information disclosed by the newspaper was widely known and published. Sarney then appealed the decision and obtained a court order against the newspaper. The injunction was granted on the grounds that the disclosure of information obtained in an undercover criminal investigation could expose his public status to potentially serious and irreparable damages concerning his image and privacy.


Decision Overview

On appeal before the Federal Supreme Court of Brazil, the newspaper argued that the injunction was contrary to what the Court had established in ADPF 130-DF, declaring the Press Act unconstitutional and reaffirming the underlying principles of the right to freedom of expression.

On December 12, 2009, the Supreme Court dismissed the claim, stating that such remedy did not fit in the constitutional analysis in ADPF 130-DF because the cases were factually different. The Court found that publishing the information obtained through a criminal investigation violated Sarney’s rights of personality and privacy under Article 5 of the Federal Constitution.

The Court found that the newspaper’s claim was incorrect because there was no connection between the ADPF 130-DF and the facts presented in the current case. While in the former case, the Court stressed the importance of protecting the press in cases of conflict between privacy and the right to freedom of expression, it concluded that one right should not be given more weight over the other and that they both must be analyzed in an equal playing field.

Justice Carlos Britto, who wrote the majority in ADPF 130-DF, dissented. He stated that Articles 61 to 64 of the unconstitutionally-declared Press Act addressed the concern over judicial censorship and that the present case was in fact about judicial censorship, the main reason for declaring the Act unconstitutional. According to him, issues regarding the press raise core values of freedom of expression, and legislatures and judges cannot limit the core values protected by the Constitution. Finally, Britto stated that the decision issued against the newspaper was a surreptitious application of the Press Act.

Justice Eros Grau mentioned Karl Marx to state an idea that censorship is a matter of absence of law; whereas judges may apply the rule of Law, judicial censorship would be counter intuitive. Following these lines, the present case was not about censorship, but, instead, about the application of the rule of law.

According to Justice Celso de Mello, the role of the press in a democratic society is crucial and criticism is an inseparable part of this role, even more so when public interest is involved and the criticized figure is a public official.

The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals of the Federal District for further consideration in light of its ruling. The Court of Appeal’s final decision is currently pending.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Mixed Outcome

On one side, the decision contracts expression to the extent that the Court maintained the injunction issued against O Estado de São Paulo. On the other hand, the decision establishes boundaries that can be applied by the lower courts to consistently analyze conflicts involving rights of privacy and freedom of expression, while preserving the integrity of the judiciary branch.


Global Perspective

Quick Info

Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • Braz., Law 5250 (Press Act) (1967)
  • Braz., S.T.F., ADPF 130/DF, D.J.e. 11.06.2009

Case Significance

Quick Info

Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

The decision will guide every issue raised before S.T.F. as a claim based on APDF 130-DF, setting boundaries of which FoI, FoE, and FoP claims will have access to the S.T.F. The decision will also give guidance to the lower courts to create some consistency in the future decisions.


Official Case Documents

Reports, Analysis, and News Articles:


Have comments?

Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.

Send Feedback