Different libel laws cause grief around the world

One of the oddest things I ever saw in Hong Kong was the idea that even if a statement was true a person or organization can still sue  for libel if that statement changed what people think about that person or organization.

As I explained to my journalism students, in the United States if I wrote that someone was a tax-cheating bigamist and could prove it, there is no libel.

Truth is an absolute defense for libel.

Makes sense. But that is not the case in other parts of the world.

Seems Brazil has a bizarre version of this as well.

Journalist Joe Sharkey is being sued by a woman he never met or ever wrote about because he defamed the good name of Brazil. (To me that always sounds like something Beijing says whenever the Western media write a story critical of China: “That report is hurting the feelings of all Chinese people.”)

SIDEBAR: The government of Brazil sued the producers of the The Simpsons often. In a 2002 episode the Simpsons were in Brazil.  The family was robbed, eaten by snake, kidnapped and abused by monkeys. The Brazilian government sued. And the response of the Simpson team: More jokes about Brazil. And more lawsuits. None were successful — at least in the USA.

The Sharkey case goes back to a 2006 air crash over the Amazon. (You can read the details of the crash here and at Sharkey’s blog.) After being held for questioning and released, Sharkey, who was in one of the planes, returned to New York and wrote the story for the New York Times.

Even though nothing in Sharkey’s article has been shown to be incorrect or misleading, the fact that it called into question the air traffic control system of Brazil (something the government admits now is a problem) meant that he libeled the good name of Brazil.

The case was tossed but recently reinstated. See Sharkey’s account here: Brazil Reverses Itself, Finds Me Guilty of Causing ‘Dishonor” to the Nation

What is also interesting in Sharkey’s account of his case is the way some in the Brazilian media go off on bizarre tangents and conspiracy theories. For some reason — political, xenophobic, lack of training — too many reporters are willing to accept conspiracy theories over actually looking into the details of a story.

Brazilian journalists I have met and followed are independent types. Freedom of the press is still only 25 years or so old in Brazil. Efforts to control the media or use “social criticism” to “guide” it are fought tooth and nail by journalists and publishers.

What is missing still is making sure the practice of getting as many varied sources to comment on a story instead of just using one source is the rule instead of the exception. I have seen too many stories that had the reporter just made one extra phone call he/she would have seen that the line being fed was a mixture of lies, conjecture with a few facts tossed in for flavoring.

Brazilian journalists are working on improving their profession. And should be praised for it.

It looks, however, as if the Brazilian legal system — at least as far as free speech and libel laws are concerned — has a way to go.

See Brazilian law still has a problem with press freedom about how a Brazilian newspaper had to pay a settlement to a town mayor for reporting that the mayor was found guilty of corruption. Or Brazilian journalist facing jail for offending candidate seeks habeas corpus.

 

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6 Comments

Filed under Connections, International News Coverage, South America

6 responses to “Different libel laws cause grief around the world

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