Watch your tongue: Prejudiced comments illegal in Brazil (The Christian Science Monitor)

Brazilian lawmakers and law enforcement have drawn the line on free speech when it comes to racial, religious, or ethnic agitation – even though it is a constitutional right.

Temp Headline ImagePeople leave work at the end of the day in Centro, the business district in Rio de Janeiro, in this September 18 file photo. Brazilian lawmakers and law enforcement have drawn the line on free speech when it comes to racial, religious, or ethnic agitation. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File)

By Taylor Barnes, Correspondent.

Posted December 4, 2012 at 11:11 am EST

RIO DE JANEIROIn an amateur online video, Afonso Henrique Alves Lobato describes how he and fellow members of his Evangelical church snuck into a spiritual center of Umbanda, an Afro-Brazilian faith that venerates deities originating from Africa in services led by a religious figure called a pai de santo.

“I saw a pai de santo, gay, of course, because every pai de santo is homosexual,” the young Mr. Lobato said. “As everyone knows, a [Umbanda] spiritual center is a place where the devil is called upon.”

Brazilian authorities had no tolerance for his remarks. Lobato and his pastor, Tupirani da Hora Lores, who reportedly posted disparaging remarks about other religions online, were swiftly jailed and charged with a crime: religious intolerance.

These men were the first to be jailed for such a crime in Brazil when authorities detained them pre-trial. In July the pair was found guilty and given a sentence of community service and a fine.

“No one should imagine that these religious men are being unfairly punished,” Rio’s prominent crime columnist, Jorge Antonio Barros, wrote in the national O Globo newspaper. “Nobody has the right to disrespect someone else’s religious practices, all the less so in the name of God.”

This kind of ruling may seem entirely foreign to a US audience, used to vigorous freedom of speech protection. But in Brazil, this type of ruling is the norm – especially as social media opens up a new, visible outlet for offensive comments.

Brazil’s diverse ethnic and religious makeup is often compared with that of the United States, and tensions run high. It has a legacy of slavery, a marginalized indigenous population, large immigrant clusters, and a majority Christian population that clashes with Afro-Brazilian religions. But Brazil’s approach to “hate speech” is starkly different than that of the US. From arresting an Argentine soccer player for racist shouts during a game, prosecuting a columnist in the Amazon for writing that government officials “could not stand the odor exhaled by Indians,” and ordering YouTube to remove the infamous “Innocence of Muslims” video due to its potential to incite intolerance – prejudiced comments are simply illegal in Brazil.

Despite a constitutional principle of freedom of expression, Brazilian lawmakers and law enforcement have drawn the line when it comes to agitating racial, religious, or ethnic tensions. And though the legislation is widely accepted as legitimate, even advocates of criminalizing intolerance say the best the law can do is make an offender hold his or her tongue, rather than change the racial and religious tensions that still run deep in Brazilian society.

‘Human dignity’

There are two types of offenses in Brazil when it comes to hate speech. Both are punishable by prison time under the 1990 law, which was passed after two decades of military dictatorship but is increasingly visible today. One has to do with insults directed at a specific person based on their race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality. The second is the expression and encouragement of prejudice toward the same groups in general, as was the case of the Evangelicals.

Supporters say that violent hate crimes are a reality in Brazil and that human dignity is as important a principle as freedom of speech. There’s currently a push to include the protection of sexual orientation under the law as well. In April, a gay couple was found tortured and killed inside their home in the state of Alagoas, and 226 gays, lesbians, and transvestites were killed in 2011 alone.

‘A pedagogical effect’ 

In Brazil, freedom of speech “doesn’t mean someone can use that right to impinge on someone else[‘s] rights, like the right to human dignity,” says Henrique Mariano, the president of the Brazilian Bar Association in the northeastern state of Pernambuco.

In 2010 the Pernambuco Bar Association sued law student Mayara Petruso in São Paulo for racist comments on Twitter. She was the first Brazilian to be found guilty of racism expressed over social media when convicted this May. After the election of President Dilma Rousseff in 2010, a wave of anti-northeastern comments struck social networks from opponents who accused the candidate of winning by giving handouts to the poor, especially in Brazil’s economically depressed northeast.

“Give the right to vote to northeasterners and you drown the country of those who worked to support the bums who have a kid so they can get a check,” Ms. Petruso tweeted, in addition to sending messages saying residents of the wealthy state of São Paulo should “drown” a northeasterner.

“I think this sentence has a pedagogical effect,” says Mr. Mariano, who says the case of Petruso – whose prison sentence was converted to community service because she was a first-time offender – was used as an example to emphasize that hate speech on social media can be prosecuted.

“When people see this punishment, this can restrain themselves or in the future prevent others from doing something similar.”

Petruso’s case made national headlines as she went to trial, where she did not deny having sent the tweets. She defended herself in court by saying she was not prejudiced and comparing her remarks to a heated outburst during a soccer game: “My candidate was José Serra [Rousseff’s opponent], it was something in the moment, like in a soccer game between two teams when a player yells: ‘I’m going to kill [São Paulo club] Corinthians!”

‘Disqualifies’ Brazilian democracy?

Daniel Silva, a linguistics professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, says that Brazilians largely do not protest or question the laws against prejudice and that, rather than claiming free speech, defendants typically try to reconstruct their comments as a joke or say they were misunderstood.

But Ricardo Noblat, a popular political columnist who describes himself as a member of the left, warns about the zeal to apply a law that restricts free speech in the name of human dignity but in practice is used to target so-called conservative standpoints.

In a column headlined “The fascism of the well intentioned,” Mr. Noblat defended ultra-conservative Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, who routinely speaks out on culture war issues such as abortion rights and a proposed “gay kit” that would be distributed in public schools to counter homophobic attitudes. Noblat noted that former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva famously said that the global financial crisis had been caused by “blonde people with blue eyes” without an outcry of racism over his comments.

“I think this [curbing of free speech] disqualifies the Brazilian democracy,” Noblat says. He adds that after a two-decade military dictatorship, which ended in 1985, Brazil does not have a deeply rooted culture of Democracy. Freedom of speech, Noblat says, “only worries a small part of society.”

“The justice system itself takes this position, that freedom of expression is less important than certain other things, like the repression and punishment of opinions that injure certain values,” he says.  

While US courts and officials routinely uphold Americans’ rights to offensive speech, as in the case of the Koran-burning pastor Terry Jones, linguistics professor Silva notes that each society finds its own limits on free speech. He gives the example of the US military investigating a WikiLeaks sympathizer for the crime of “communication with the enemy.”

“The fact that here in Brazil there is this law, it doesn’t mean that people will be any less racist,” says Mr. Silva. “They will at least know that they will be accountable for what they say. In these very fragile racial relations, at least people know that they have rights [to dignity]”