By Philip Sever, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – The Supreme Court in Brazil is looking to repeal censorship laws passed during the military dictatorship and still lurking in the country’s constitution today. Lula’s government is the first since the return of democracy in the 1980s to look into the shadowy past and take responsibility for banishing the antiquated laws that could still be used against the freedom of speech.
The first inroads were made on January 5 of this year when a press censorship law that had been in force for 42 years and was one of the last legal remnants of the 1964-1985 military regime was repealed by the Supreme Court. The 7-4 in favour ruling that the law was unconstitutional and violated freedom of expression was a major step towards closing an oppressive era in Brazil’s history when the exiling of journalists, musicians and politicians was commonplace.
“In the name of national security, the law censored news media, composers, playwrights and writers and allowed for the seizure of publications” said one of the judges, and while the law’s harshest measures have not been applied since the new constitution was ratified in 1988, its presence was a reminder of a thorny subject.
More recently the Supreme Court has been debating whether a law passed in 1967 stipulating that all journalists have to hold a diploma and register with the labour ministry should also be consigned to history, though this has met with rather more opposition.
The National Federation of Journalists (NFJ) thinks a change in the law is unnecessary. “The quality of journalism in Brazil would suffer if the rules are changed,” stated Celso Schröder a member of the NFJ recently. Of course whether or not journalism is of a high standard in Brazil because of its rich history and competitive nature or because of the diploma requirement is unclear, but certainly the NFJ would stand to lose power as a result of the law being changed.
Despite improvements in press freedom, journalists still face certain restrictions. The Brazilian Constitution states clearly that public information has to be made accessible, but some media outlets are currently suing the Brazilian government for not giving information up on request. More recently, several institutions have founded the National Forum of The Right of Access to Public Information, which aims to put pressure on the Government and Congress so that a Freedom of Information Act is passed in Brazil.
Whether or not these moves are simply symbolic or a genuine desire to prevent the laws being abused again in the future is unclear. What is clear is that for there to be genuinely free press the influence of politicians in media companies also needs to be investigated, but for now the reassurance that the powers over free speech of the past are being addressed is an important step.