A Brazilian Writer Saw a Tweet as Tame Satire. Then Came the Lawsuits.

RIO DE JANEIRO — The acerbic tweet got here naturally to the Brazilian novelist and journalist J.P. Cuenca, who was a number of months into a quarantine doom-scrolling routine.

One June afternoon, he read an article about the tens of millions of {dollars} President Jair Bolsonaro’s authorities had spent promoting on radio and tv stations owned by its evangelical Christian allies, notably the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a Protestant denomination that has helped propel Brazil’s political shift rightward.

“Brazilians will only be free when the last Bolsonaro is strangled with the entrails of the last pastor from the Universal Church,” Mr. Cuenca wrote on Twitter, riffing on an oft-cited 18th century quote about the fates that ought to befall kings and clergymen.

He put his telephone down, made espresso and carried on together with his day, oblivious that the missive would quickly price him his job with a German information outlet, immediate demise threats and spark a cascade of litigation. At least 130 Universal Church pastors, claiming “moral injury,” have sued him in distant courthouses round the huge nation.

Mr. Cuenca is amongst the newest targets of a kind of authorized campaign that pastors and politicians in Brazil are more and more waging in opposition to journalists and critics in a bitterly polarized nation. Defendants or their legal professionals should then present up in individual for every swimsuit, main them in a mad rush round the nation.

“Their strategy is to sue me in different parts of the country so I have to defend myself in all these corners of Brazil, a continent-size nation,” he stated. “They want to instill fear in future critical voices and to drive me to ruin or madness. It’s Kafka in the tropics.”

Press freedom advocates say the sheer variety of fits in opposition to Mr. Cuenca is uncommon, however the kind of marketing campaign he faces not is.

Leticia Kleim, a legal expert at the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalists, stated, “We’re seeing the justice system become a means to censure and impede the work of journalists.”

She stated the variety of lawsuits in opposition to journalists and information organizations searching for the removing of content material or damages for essential protection has elevated notably throughout the presidency of Mr. Bolsonaro, who typically berates and insults journalists.

“The stigmatizing rhetoric has incentivized this practice,” she stated. “Politicians portray journalists as the enemy and their base of supporters act the same way.”

Mr. Cuenca stated he didn’t deem his tweet notably offensive given the state of political discourse in Brazil.

After all, the nation is ruled by a president who supports torture, as soon as instructed a feminine lawmaker she was too ugly to rape, stated he would fairly his son die in an accident than be homosexual, and in 2018 was criminally charged with inciting hatred in opposition to Black folks, girls and Indigenous folks.

Earlier this yr, Mr. Bolsonaro lashed out at two reporters who requested about a corruption case against one in all his sons. He told one he had a “terribly homosexual face” and stated to a different that he was tempted to smash his face in.

Mr. Cuenca noticed his criticism as comparatively high-minded. He stated he disdains the Universal Church, which has grown into a transnational behemoth since its founding in the 1970s, as a result of he believes it fueled Mr. Bolsonaro’s rise to the presidency, enabling ecological destruction, reckless dealing with of the coronavirus pandemic and institutional chaos.

“I was totally bored, distracted, procrastinating and angry over politics,” Mr. Cuenca stated. “What I wrote was satire.”

The first signal of bother was the wave of assaults that poured in on his social media accounts. Then got here a one-line e mail from his editor at the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, the place he wrote a common column. “Cuenca, did you really tweet that?” she requested.

He supplied to write down a column explaining the historical past of the quote — variations of which have been attributed to the French priest Jean Meslier and later to Diderot and Voltaire — and providing examples of modern-day intellectuals utilizing variations on the line to touch upon Brazilian issues.

But the editor referred to as the tweet “abominable” and instructed Mr. Cuenca his column was being canceled. Deutsche Welle issued a assertion about its choice, saying it repudiates “any type of hate speech or incitement to violence.”

Eduardo Bolsonaro, a federal lawmaker and one in all the president’s sons, celebrated Deutsche Welle’s choice in a message on Twitter and stated he supposed to sue Mr. Cuenca.

In August, Mr. Cuenca was startled to be taught the tweet had led to a referral for prison prosecution. But Frederico de Carvalho Paiva, the prosecutor who dealt with the referral, declined to cost Mr. Cuenca, writing in a choice that the journalist had a constitutional proper to criticize the president, even in “rude and offensive” phrases.

“That’s freedom of expression, which can’t be throttled by ignorant people who are unable to grasp hyperbole,” the prosecutor wrote.

Mr. Cuenca searched his identify in a database of authorized instances and located the first of dozens of strikingly comparable lawsuits by pastors from the Universal Church, searching for financial damages for the misery they stated the tweet had precipitated them. They had been filed beneath a authorized mechanism that requires the defendant or a authorized consultant to seem in individual to mount a protection.

Some pastors have discovered receptive judges, together with one who ordered that Mr. Cuenca delete his whole Twitter account as a type of reparations. But one other choose discovered the motion meritless and referred to as it in a ruling “almost an abuse of the legal process.”

In a assertion, the Universal Church stated it had performed no position in the torrent of litigation. “Brazil’s Constitution guarantees everyone — including evangelical pastors — the right to seek justice,” the church stated. “Whoever feels they have been offended or disrespected can seek reparations before the courts, which get to decide who is right.”

The assertion stated that the proper to freedom of speech in Brazil is “not absolute,” and that satire isn’t a protection for spiritual prejudice. “It must be remembered that the assertion by the writer João Paulo Cuenca provoked repudiation among many Christians on social media.”

Taís Gasparian, a lawyer in São Paulo who has defended a number of individuals who confronted comparable bursts of almost-identical, simultaneous lawsuits, stated plaintiffs like the Universal Church abuse a authorized mechanism that was created in the 1990s to make the justice system accessible and reasonably priced to strange folks.

The kind of motion filed in opposition to Mr. Cuenca doesn’t require that a plaintiff rent a lawyer, however defendants who don’t present up in individual or ship a lawyer typically lose by default. Universal Church pastors started a comparable wave of fits in opposition to the journalist Elvira Lobato after she printed an article in December 2007 documenting links between the church and corporations primarily based in tax havens.

The timing and the hanging similarities amongst the lawsuits filed in opposition to Ms. Lobato and Mr. Cuenca make it clear they had been copy-paste jobs, Ms. Gasparian stated.

“It’s enormously cruel,” she stated. “It’s an intimidation tactic in a country where the traditional media is facing big challenges.”

Paulo José Avelino da Silva, one in all the pastors who sued Mr. Cuenca, stated he took the motion on his personal initiative as a result of the tweet offended him.

“As a Brazilian it made me feel like I was being excluded from my own country,” stated the pastor, who lives in Maragogi, a seashore city in the northeastern state of Alagoas. “If he had retracted what he wrote, I would not have sued.”

Mr. Cuenca stated he hoped the ordeal would result in adjustments in the justice system that stop comparable authorized barrages. And maybe the entire factor will turn into the topic of his subsequent inventive venture.

“I’m thinking of making a film,” he stated. He envisions touring to distant cities to fulfill the pastors who sued him and see what occurs if they only sit head to head and change views in good religion. “I’d like to talk to them and find what we have in common.”

Lis Moriconi contributed reporting.

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