Brazil’s Federal Supreme Court has handed down a landmark decision for press freedom, ruling that the state must be held responsible when journalists are injured by security forces while covering demonstrations.
On 10 June 2021, the Court ruled that photojournalist Alex Silveira, who was injured and left blind in his left eye after being shot by the São Paulo military police with a rubber bullet in 2000, was entitled to compensation. Not only does this bring the journalist long-awaited justice, it will serve as a precedent for similar cases currently going through the courts, as well as for future cases.
It was a surprise to many, given the current political climate in Brazil, which has been made toxic by the populist government and its authoritarian leanings.
The Federal Supreme Court voted 10 to 1 that the state should be held responsible when journalists reporting on demonstrations are injured by security forces. As part of their deliberation process of determining how to vote, the ministers also took into account the disproportionate measures used by military police against protesters.
ARTICLE 19 Brazil and South America has been following the case since 2014 as an amicus curiae.
On 18 May 2000, Alex Silveira was covering a teachers’ protest in São Paulo when he was hit by a rubber bullet. The injury resulted in the loss of 85% of his vision, directly impacting his ability to carry out his professional activities.
Since then, Silveira has been fighting for compensation and accountability from the State of São Paulo. In the first instance, the Court recognized that the photojournalist was entitled to compensation. However, in 2014, the São Paulo Court of Justice updated the decision, this time denying compensation and upholding the argument that the responsibility for the serious injury rested entirely with the photographer on grounds that he would have “remained at the scene of the riot” by choice.
The decision taken by the São Paulo Court of Justice encouraged the disproportionate action taken by the military police, validating their violent approach, while also inhibiting and censoring the profession of journalists and media workers, with serious consequences for freedom of expression. Since the decision meant there was an imminent risk to the physical integrity of journalists, it also reduced efforts to monitor state agents using violence at demonstrations, and, as a consequence, news coverage of it.
“The scenario has been getting much worse,” Silveira said in late May 2021, following demonstrations that took place in Pernambuco during which the military police again used disproportionate tactics of suppression against protesters. “There has always been aggression, but now it is institutionalised and personalised as never before. And it affects not only journalists, but also passers-by and the right to protest. It’s absurd. This is not democracy, that’s a fact.” The May violence left two people blind after they, like Silveira, were hit by rubber bullets. The two victims had not been taking part in the demonstrations and simply got caught up in the violence.
The recent decision taken by the Federal Supreme Court will have profound repercussions: it will set a precedent and guide how the lower courts of the judiciary will handle future similar cases, and could also have an impact on cases already in progress and which have reached the stages of a final judgment.
Although this is one of the most emblematic cases involving the media and journalists in Brazil to date, it is hoped that the decision of the Court will serve as an example for other similar cases of violence that remain unpunished. The victory also reaffirms the important role of ensuring the rights to press freedom and protest in the country. “It is a historic judgment and I hope it serves as an example for other cases and is a legacy that I can leave to the profession,” said photojournalist Alex Silveira.