RIO DE JANEIRO – An acerbic tweet appeared naturally to Brazilian novelist and journalist JP Cuenci, who had been in a quarantine routine of shifting doom for several months.
One June afternoon, he read the article about millions of dollars The government of President Jair Bolsonar spent on advertising on radio and television stations owned by its evangelical Christian allies, especially the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a Protestant denomination that helped move the Brazilian political shift to the right.
“Brazilians will be free only when the last Bolsonaro is strangled by the womb of the last pastor of the Universal Church,” Mr. Cuenca wrote on Twitter, refining often quoted A quote from the 18th century about the destinies that should befall kings and priests.
He hung up the phone, made coffee, and went on with his day, unaware that the mission would soon cost him work in German news, urgent death threats, and launch a cascade of lawsuits. At least 130 pastors of the Universal Church, claiming to be “morally harmed”, sued him in remote courtrooms across the vast country.
Mr. Cuenca is one of the latest targets of the kind of legal crusade that pastors and politicians in Brazil are increasingly waging against journalists and critics in a bitterly polarized nation. Then the accused or their lawyers must appear in person for each lawsuit, leading them in a mad chase across the country.
“Their strategy is to sue me in different parts of the country, so I have to defend myself in all those parts of Brazil, the state of the continent,” he said. “They want to instill fear in future critical voices and lead me to ruin or madness. Kafka is in the tropics. “
Proponents of press freedom say the sheer number of lawsuits against Mr. Cuence is unusual, but the type of campaign he is facing is no longer.
Leticia Kleim, legal expert from the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalists said: “We see that the judicial system is becoming a means of reprimanding and obstructing the work of journalists.”
She said the number of lawsuits against journalists and news organizations seeking the removal of content or compensation for critical reports increased especially during the presidency of Mr. Bolsonar, who often harasses and insults journalists.
“The rhetoric of stigmatization has fueled this practice,” she said. “Politicians portray journalists as enemies and their base of supporters acts in the same way.”
Mr Cuenca said he did not find his tweet particularly offensive given the state of political discourse in Brazil.
Finally, the country is run by a president who supports torture, on one occasion telling a female MP too ugly to rape, said that he would rather his son die in an accident than be a homosexual, and in 2018 he was criminally charged with inciting hatred towards blacks, women and natives.
Earlier this year, Mr Bolsonaro attacked two journalists who were asking about a corruption case against one of his sons. He said once he had a “horrible homosexual face” and told another that he was tempted to break his face.
Mr. Cuenca saw his criticism as relatively high-minded. He said he despised the Universal Church, which has grown into a transnational giant since its founding in the 1970s, because he believes it spurred Mr. Bolsonar’s rise to the presidency, enabling environmental destruction, ruthless coronavirus pandemic treatment and institutional chaos.
“I was completely bored, distracted, procrastinating and angry about politics,” Mr Cuenca said. “What I wrote is a satire.”
The first sign of trouble was a wave of attacks that spilled over to his social media accounts. He then received an email from his editor at the German public service Deutsche Welle, where he wrote a regular column. “Cuenca, did you really tweet that?” she asked.
He offered to write a column explaining the history of the quotations – versions of which are attributed to the French priest Jean Meslier and later Diderot and Voltaire – and offer examples of modern intellectuals who use variations on the line to comment on Brazilian problems.
But the editor called the tweet “disgusting” and told Mr. Cuenca that his column was being canceled. Deutsche Welle issued a statement on its decision, saying it rejects “any kind of hate speech or incitement to violence”.
Eduardo Bolsonaro, federal MP and one of the president’s sons, celebrated Deutsche Welle’s decision in a Twitter message and said he intended to sue Mr. Cuenca.
In August, Mr. Cuenca was stunned to learn that the tweet had led to a referral for prosecution. But Frederico de Carvalho Paiva, the prosecutor who led the referral, refused to charge Mr Cuenca, writing in the decision that the journalist had a constitutional right to criticize the president, even in a “rude and offensive” sense.
“It is freedom of expression, which ignorant people who cannot understand hyperbole cannot put out,” the prosecutor wrote.
Mr. Cuenca searched his name in a database of legal cases and found the first of dozens of startlingly similar lawsuits by pastors from the Universal Church seeking monetary compensation for the trouble they said the tweet caused them. They are filed under a legal mechanism that requires the defendant or legal counsel to appear in person to present a defense.
Some pastors have found receptive judges, including one who ordered Mr. Cuenca to delete his entire Twitter account as a form of reparation. But another judge found the action useless and called the verdict “almost an abuse of justice.”
In a statement, the Universal Church said it did not play any role in the torrent of litigation. “The Brazilian constitution guarantees everyone – including evangelical pastors – the right to seek justice,” the church said. “Whoever feels offended or disrespected can seek redress before a court that will decide who is right.”
The statement said the right to freedom of speech in Brazil was “not absolute” and that satire was not a defense against religious prejudice. “We have to keep in mind that the statement of the writer João Paul Cuenca caused rejection among many Christians on social networks.”
Taís Gasparian, a Sao Paulo lawyer who has defended several people facing similar bursts of nearly identical, simultaneous lawsuits, said prosecutors like the Universal Church are abusing the legal mechanism created in the 1990s to make the legal system accessible and accessible. ordinary people.
Type of lawsuit filed against Mr. Cuence does not require the plaintiff to hire a lawyer, but defendants who do not appear in person or send a lawyer often lose by default. Pastors of the Universal Church have launched a similar wave of lawsuits against journalist Elvira Lobato after she published an article in December 2007 documenting the connections between the church and companies based in tax havens.
The timing and striking similarities between the lawsuits against Ms. Lobato and Mr. Cuenca clearly show that these were copy-paste deals, Ms. Gasparian said.
“It’s extremely cruel,” she said. “It’s a tactic of intimidation in a country where the traditional media faces big challenges.”
Paulo José Avelino da Silva, one of the pastors who sued Mr. Cuenca, said he took action on his own initiative because the tweet offended him.
“As a Brazilian, I felt like I was excluded from my country,” said the pastor, who lives in Maragogi, a beach town in the northeastern state of Alagoas. “If he had withdrawn what he wrote, I wouldn’t have sued.”
Mr Cuenca said he hoped the pain would lead to changes in the justice system that prevent similar legal bans. And maybe the whole thing will become the subject of his next creative project.
“I’m thinking about making a film,” he said. He imagines traveling to remote cities to meet with the pastors who sued him and see what would happen if they just sat face to face and exchanged opinions in good faith. “I’d like to talk to them and find what we have in common.”
Lis Moriconi contributed to the reporting.