RIO DE JANEIRO – The Akerbian tweet came naturally to the Brazilian novelist and journalist JP Cuenca, who for several months was in a quarantine routine with court scrolling.
One afternoon in June, he read an article about the millions of dollars President Jair Bolsonaro’s government had spent advertising on radio and television stations owned by its evangelical Christian allies, most notably the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a Protestant denomination. , which has helped drive Brazil’s political shift to the right.
“Brazilians will only be free when the last Bolsonaro is strangled with the entrails of the last priest of the Universal Church,”
He put down his phone, made coffee, and continued with his day, unaware that the missive would soon cost him his job at a German news business, cause death threats, and trigger a cascade of lawsuits. At least 130 priests in the universal church who claim “moral harm” have sued him in remote courthouses around the great country.
Sir. Cuenca is among the latest targets of a kind of legal crusade that priests and politicians in Brazil are increasingly leading against journalists and critics in a bitterly polarized nation. Defendants or their attorneys must then appear in person for each case, leading them into a wild rush around the country.
“Their strategy is to sue me in different parts of the country, so I will have to defend myself in all these corners of Brazil, one continent size,” he said. “They want to instill fear in future critical voices and drive me to destruction or madness. It’s Kafka in the tropics. ”
Freedom of the press advocates say the large number of cases against Mr. Cuenca is unusual, but the type of campaign he faces is no longer.
Leticia Kleim, a legal expert at the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalists, said: “We see the judicial system becoming a means of censoring and obstructing the work of journalists.”
She said the number of lawsuits against journalists and news organizations seeking removal of content or compensation for critical coverage has increased, especially during the presidency of Mr. Bolsonaro, who often insults and insults journalists.
“The stigmatizing rhetoric has encouraged this practice,” she said. “Politicians portray journalists as the enemy, and their base of supporters acts in the same way.”
Sir. Cuenca said he did not consider his tweet particularly offensive given the state of political discourse in Brazil.
The country is ruled after all by a president who supports torture, once told a female lawmaker she was too ugly to rape, said he would rather son die in an accident than be gay, and in 2018 he was criminally charged to incite hatred against Black people, women and indigenous peoples.
Earlier this year, Mr Bolsonaro lashed out at two journalists who were asking about a corruption case against one of his sons. He told one he had a “terrible gay face” and told another he was tempted to smash his face in.
Sir. Cuenca saw his criticism as relatively high-minded. He said he despised the universal church that has grown into a transnational skin since its founding in the 1970s because he believes it fueled Mr Bolsonaro’s arrival at the presidency, enabling ecological destruction, ruthless handling of the coronavirus pandemic and institutional chaos.
“I was totally bored, distracted, exposed and angry about politics,” Cuenca said. “What I wrote was satire.”
The first sign of trouble was the wave of attacks pouring into his social media accounts. Then came an e-mail from his editor at the German public television station Deutsche Welle, in which he wrote a regular column. “Cuenca, did you really tweet that?” she asked.
He offered to write a column explaining the history of the quote – versions of it were attributed to the French priest Jean Meslier and later to Diderot and Voltaire – and with examples of modern intellectuals using variations on the line to comment on Brazilian problems.
But the editor called the tweet “disgusting” and told Mr. Cuenca that his column was annulled. Deutsche Welle issued a statement on its decision, saying it rejected “any hate speech or incitement to violence.”
Eduardo Bolsonaro, a federal lawmaker and one of the president’s sons, celebrated Deutsche Welle’s decision in a Twitter message, saying he intended to sue Cuenca.
In August, Mr. Cuenca was horrified to hear that the tweet had led to a referral to criminal prosecution. But Frederico de Carvalho Paiva, the prosecutor who handled the referral, refused to charge Mr Cuenca, writing in a resolution that the journalist had a constitutional right to criticize the president, even in “rude and offensive” terms.
“It is freedom of speech that cannot be broken down by ignorant people who are unable to understand hyperbole,” the prosecutor wrote.
Sir. Cuenca searched its name in a database of legal cases and found the first of dozens of striking similar lawsuits from pastors from Universal Church, seeking monetary damages for the distress they said the tweet had caused them. They were filed under a legal mechanism requiring the defendant or a legal representative to appear in person to make a defense.
Some pastors have found receptive judges, including one who ordered that Mr. Cuenca deleted his entire Twitter account as a form of replacement. But another judge found the action unfavorable and called it in a decision “almost an abuse of the legal process.”
In a statement, the Universal Church said it had played no part in the disputes. “Brazil’s constitution guarantees everyone – including evangelical priests – the right to seek justice,” the church said. “Anyone who feels that they have been insulted or respected can seek redress from the courts, who will decide who is right.”
The declaration said that the right to freedom of expression in Brazil is “not absolute,” and that satire is not a defense of religious prejudice. “It must be remembered that the claim of the author João Paulo Cuenca provoked rejection among many Christians on social media.”
Taís Gasparian, a lawyer in São Paulo who has defended several people facing similar outbursts of nearly identical, simultaneous lawsuits, said plaintiffs like Universal Church are abusing a legal mechanism set up in the 1990s to make the justice system accessible and affordable for ordinary people.
The type of action filed against Mr. Cuenca, does not require a plaintiff to hire a lawyer, but defendants who do not appear in person or send a lawyer often lose by default. Priests of the Universal Church began a similar wave of complaints against journalist Elvira Lobato after she published an article in December 2007 documenting links between the church and companies based in tax havens.
The timing and striking similarities between the lawsuits against Mrs Lobato and Mr Cuenca make it clear that they were copy jobs, Mrs Gasparian said.
“It’s hugely cruel,” she said. “It is an intimidation tactic in a country where the traditional media face major challenges.”
Paulo José Avelino da Silva, one of the priests who sued Mr. Cuenca, said he took the action on his own initiative because the tweet offended him.
“As a Brazilian, it made me feel excluded from my own country,” said the pastor, who lives in Maragogi, a beach town in the northeastern part of Alagoas. “If he had withdrawn what he wrote, I would not have sued.”
Sir. Cuenca said he hoped the review would lead to changes in the judicial system that prevent similar legal barriers. And maybe it will all be the subject of his next creative project.
“I’m thinking of making a movie,” he said. He imagines traveling to distant cities to meet the priests who sued him and see what happens if they just sit face to face and exchange views in good faith. “I want to talk to them and find out what we have in common.”
Lis Moriconi contributed reporting.