The Supreme Court of Brazil’s decision to sentence Jose Dirceu, former chief of staff of ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to 10 years and 10 months in jail is a landmark moment in regional efforts to combat a culture of corruption and impunity. With hindsight it seems unusual that such senior political figures were ever brought to account. The Economist’s Americas blog points out that absent the Supreme Court’s attention to the ‘Mensalao‘ trial, the 25 accused would have likely have faced no penalties, thanks to a “rule known as ‘privileged forum’ which says that top politicians can only be tried for crimes in higher courts.” That the trial not only yielded convictions but also handed down heavy sentences is nothing short of remarkable. Few commentators dared hope for such a result, especially since the verdict comes seven years after the scandal first broke and five years after the Surpreme Court decided to hear the case.
As it happens, just a month ago Transparency International and the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (Press and Society Institute, IPYS) gave three Brazilian journalists the annual Latin American Investigative Journalism Award for their tenacious reporting on the a scandal that eventually led to the resignation of President Dilma Rousseff’s Chief of Staff, Antonio Palocci. (To date, Rousseff has sacked no fewer than seven ministers over corruption charges.) In true Woodward and Bernstein fashion, the journalists’ investigation, in the pages of Folha de Sao Paulo, began with a story about the dubious purchase of a luxury apartment. As they followed leads and pieced evidence together, a complex network of illicit activities came into view, much of it centering on a consultancy firm in which Minister Palocci was involved.
Addressing the Latin American Investigative Journalism Conference at which the Brazilians received their award, David Kaplan Manager of the Global Investigative Journalism Network said “if you invest in investigative journalism, you get dividends in democracy, transparency and accountability.” That triple benediction, to which so much lip-service is paid by self-serving governments in the Americas, remains elusive because of the difficulty of establishing freedom of expression as a fundamental right.
Throughout the Americas, if journalists are not physically threatened, attacked or killed (as has happened frequently in Colombia, Mexico and Honduras) they frequently face charges of criminal libel, or crippling fines. In February, for instance, Ecuador’s highest court upheld a US$40M libel suit President Rafael Correa had won against the owners of El Universo newspaper. A week later, Correa pardoned the El Universo defendants and dropped separate libel charges against journalists who had written about government contracts awarded to his brother Fabricio.
However, as he made these magnanimous gestures, the president quipped: “They have been talking about a dictatorship and they were right … It was the dictatorship of the media.” The remark suggests how unwilling governments throughout the region are to expose themselves to scrutiny from a sceptical press. Mexico remains the starkest example of an entrenched culture of impunity. In the current issue of the New York Review of Books, Alma Guillermoprieto recounts a 2010 visit the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) paid to President Felipe Calderón.
The CPJ was concerned at the lack of progress with investigations into the murder of an El Diario journalist named Jose Armando ‘Choco‘ Rodriguez, a crime reporter who had dared to link “relatives of the Chihuahua state attorney general … to the drug trade.” (Less than a day after the story was published, Choco was murdered in his car as he prepared to drive his young daughter to school.)
Two years on there seemed to be no progress on the Rodriguez case; even two federal investigators had been appointed (and assassinated) in that time. During the meeting, however, Calderon told the CPJ that “the murder of Choco Rodriguez had just been solved; the culprit was a confessed hit man who had been under arrest for several months and had not previously mentioned murdering Rodriguez, but who had recovered his memory of this crime.” Not long afterwards the CPJ and El Diario were able to establish that a few weeks before the CPJ meeting with Calderon the alleged confession had been extracted by torture. Joel Simon, executive director of the CPJ, told Guillermoprieto: “Whatever limited confidence we had in the investigation disintegrated at that point.”
Given this context, the convictions in the ‘Mensalao‘ trial are a promising sign that widespread regional indifference to “democracy, transparency and accountability” can be overcome. In time, with enough brave investigative journalists and stronger, more confident democratic institutions, it may even become a thing of the past. The recent humbling of some of Brazil’s mightiest politicians is a small but important step in that direction.