The struggle to end Impunity

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.

Latest in Editorial

default placeholder

Britain’s referendum

Exactly how a people could vote in favour of inflicting damage on themselves must seem perplexing at first glance. In fact it is not so, given that those in Britain who voted to leave the European Union in Thursday’s referendum were hardly reticent about the reasons for their choice.

default placeholder

What’s the matter with Britain?

One way to make sense of Britain’s decision to quit Europe is to gaze across the Atlantic. Not long ago, during the years of the second Bush presidency, millions of America’s poorest citizens proved to be the Republican Party’s staunchest supporters.

default placeholder

Zero sum game

During the previous administration of the PPP/C, many commentators described the political status quo in Guyana as a zero sum game.

default placeholder

Hindsight and the Diamond well

In September last year, residents of Diamond Housing Scheme and some surrounding communities saw water cease to flow through their taps.

default placeholder

Britain’s vote on European Union membership

Tomorrow, the electorate of the United Kingdom votes on the issue of whether to remain or leave the European Union (EU).

default placeholder

Education management

The Brickdam Secondary School brouhaha is one of those irritating distractions inflicted upon us from time to time, but which invariably could be minimized through the application of good sense.

default placeholder

Fedders Lloyd and transparency

The announcement on Friday that Indian company Fedders Lloyd had been prohibited from participating in the proposed construction of the Specialty Hospital is a lesson about rectitude in public procurement, one that the APNU+AFC government failed to heed just months into its administration.

default placeholder

The Big Four and the secret contract

Last week the Big Four from the city council went to Mexico.  To look at parking meters. It would have cost the ratepayers of Georgetown their airfares (did they travel economy?); their hotel bills (did they seek lodgings at a four star hostelry or something more modest?); a per diem for each of them; and sundry expenses.

Comments

About these comments

The comments section is intended to provide a forum for reasoned and reasonable debate on the newspaper's content and is an extension of the newspaper and what it has become well known for over its history: accuracy, balance and fairness. We reserve the right to edit or delete comments which contain attacks on other users, slander, coarse language and profanity, and gratuitous and incendiary references to race and ethnicity.

Stay updated! Follow Stabroek News on Facebook or Twitter.

Get the day's headlines from SN in your inbox every morning: