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A Brazilian Writer Saw a Tweet as Tame Satire. Then Came the Lawsuits.

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RIO DE JANEIRO — The acerbic tweet got here naturally to the Brazilian novelist and journalist J.P. Cuenca, who was a number of months right into a quarantine doom-scrolling routine.

One June afternoon, he learn an article in regards to the hundreds of thousands of {dollars} President Jair Bolsonaro’s authorities had spent promoting on radio and tv stations owned by its evangelical Christian allies, significantly the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a Protestant denomination that has helped propel Brazil’s political shift rightward.

“Brazilians will only be free when the last Bolsonaro is strangled with the entrails of the last pastor from the Universal Church,” Mr. Cuenca wrote on Twitter, riffing on an oft-cited 18th century quote in regards to the fates that ought to befall kings and clergymen.

He put his cellphone down, made espresso and carried on along with his day, oblivious that the missive would quickly price him his job with a German information outlet, immediate loss of life threats and spark a cascade of litigation. At least 130 Universal Church pastors, claiming “moral injury,” have sued him in distant courthouses across the huge nation.

Mr. Cuenca is among the many newest targets of a sort of authorized campaign that pastors and politicians in Brazil are more and more waging towards journalists and critics in a bitterly polarized nation. Defendants or their attorneys should then present up in particular person for every go well with, main them in a mad rush across the nation.

“Their strategy is to sue me in different parts of the country so I have to defend myself in all these corners of Brazil, a continent-size nation,” he mentioned. “They want to instill fear in future critical voices and to drive me to ruin or madness. It’s Kafka in the tropics.”

Press freedom advocates say the sheer variety of fits towards Mr. Cuenca is uncommon, however the kind of marketing campaign he faces now not is.

Leticia Kleim, a authorized knowledgeable on the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalists, mentioned, “We’re seeing the justice system become a means to censure and impede the work of journalists.”

She mentioned the variety of lawsuits towards journalists and information organizations searching for the elimination of content material or damages for vital protection has elevated notably in the course of the presidency of Mr. Bolsonaro, who usually berates and insults journalists.

“The stigmatizing rhetoric has incentivized this practice,” she mentioned. “Politicians portray journalists as the enemy and their base of supporters act the same way.”

Mr. Cuenca mentioned he didn’t deem his tweet significantly offensive given the state of political discourse in Brazil.

After all, the nation is ruled by a president who helps torture, as soon as instructed a feminine lawmaker she was too ugly to rape, mentioned he would fairly his son die in an accident than be homosexual, and in 2018 was criminally charged with inciting hatred towards Black folks, girls and Indigenous folks.

Earlier this yr, Mr. Bolsonaro lashed out at two reporters who requested a couple of corruption case towards certainly one of his sons. He instructed one he had a “terribly homosexual face” and mentioned to a different that he was tempted to smash his face in.

Mr. Cuenca noticed his criticism as comparatively high-minded. He mentioned he disdains the Universal Church, which has grown right into a transnational behemoth since its founding within the 1970s, as a result of he believes it fueled Mr. Bolsonaro’s rise to the presidency, enabling ecological destruction, reckless dealing with of the coronavirus pandemic and institutional chaos.

“I was totally bored, distracted, procrastinating and angry over politics,” Mr. Cuenca mentioned. “What I wrote was satire.”

The first signal of bother was the wave of assaults that poured in on his social media accounts. Then got here a one-line e mail from his editor on the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, the place he wrote a daily column. “Cuenca, did you really tweet that?” she requested.

He supplied to jot down a column explaining the historical past of the quote — variations of which have been attributed to the French priest Jean Meslier and later to Diderot and Voltaire — and providing examples of modern-day intellectuals utilizing variations on the road to touch upon Brazilian issues.

But the editor referred to as the tweet “abominable” and instructed Mr. Cuenca his column was being canceled. Deutsche Welle issued a press release about its choice, saying it repudiates “any type of hate speech or incitement to violence.”

Eduardo Bolsonaro, a federal lawmaker and one of many president’s sons, celebrated Deutsche Welle’s choice in a message on Twitter and mentioned he supposed to sue Mr. Cuenca.

In August, Mr. Cuenca was startled to be taught the tweet had led to a referral for prison prosecution. But Frederico de Carvalho Paiva, the prosecutor who dealt with the referral, declined to cost Mr. Cuenca, writing in a call that the journalist had a constitutional proper to criticize the president, even in “rude and offensive” phrases.

“That’s freedom of expression, which can’t be throttled by ignorant people who are unable to grasp hyperbole,” the prosecutor wrote.

Mr. Cuenca searched his title in a database of authorized circumstances and located the primary of dozens of strikingly related lawsuits by pastors from the Universal Church, searching for financial damages for the misery they mentioned the tweet had precipitated them. They had been filed underneath a authorized mechanism that requires the defendant or a authorized consultant to seem in particular person to mount a protection.

Some pastors have discovered receptive judges, together with one who ordered that Mr. Cuenca delete his total Twitter account as a type of reparations. But one other decide discovered the motion meritless and referred to as it in a ruling “almost an abuse of the legal process.”

In a press release, the Universal Church mentioned it had performed no position within the torrent of litigation. “Brazil’s Constitution guarantees everyone — including evangelical pastors — the right to seek justice,” the church mentioned. “Whoever feels they have been offended or disrespected can seek reparations before the courts, which get to decide who is right.”

The assertion mentioned that the correct to freedom of speech in Brazil is “not absolute,” and that satire is just not a protection for spiritual prejudice. “It must be remembered that the assertion by the writer João Paulo Cuenca provoked repudiation among many Christians on social media.”

Taís Gasparian, a lawyer in São Paulo who has defended a number of individuals who confronted related bursts of almost-identical, simultaneous lawsuits, mentioned plaintiffs just like the Universal Church abuse a authorized mechanism that was created within the 1990s to make the justice system accessible and inexpensive to peculiar folks.

The kind of motion filed towards Mr. Cuenca doesn’t require {that a} plaintiff rent a lawyer, however defendants who don’t present up in particular person or ship a lawyer usually lose by default. Universal Church pastors started an identical wave of fits towards the journalist Elvira Lobato after she printed an article in December 2007 documenting hyperlinks between the church and firms based mostly in tax havens.

The timing and the putting similarities among the many lawsuits filed towards Ms. Lobato and Mr. Cuenca make it clear they had been copy-paste jobs, Ms. Gasparian mentioned.

“It’s enormously cruel,” she mentioned. “It’s an intimidation tactic in a country where the traditional media is facing big challenges.”

Paulo José Avelino da Silva, one of many pastors who sued Mr. Cuenca, mentioned he took the motion on his personal initiative as a result of the tweet offended him.

“As a Brazilian it made me feel like I was being excluded from my own country,” mentioned the pastor, who lives in Maragogi, a seashore city within the northeastern state of Alagoas. “If he had retracted what he wrote, I would not have sued.”

Mr. Cuenca mentioned he hoped the ordeal would result in modifications within the justice system that forestall related authorized barrages. And maybe the entire thing will turn into the topic of his subsequent inventive mission.

“I’m thinking of making a film,” he mentioned. He envisions touring to distant cities to fulfill the pastors who sued him and see what occurs if they simply sit head to head and trade views in good religion. “I’d like to talk to them and find what we have in common.”

Lis Moriconi contributed reporting.



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