By João Paulo Cuenca
We have edited this piece, translated from Spanish, for brevity and clarity.
A tweet unleashed it all: an act of free expression in Jair Bolsonaro’s country.
The Brazilian writer and journalist João Paulo Cuenca gives us a startling insight into the days that followed the filing of a series of lawsuits against him, dubbed the “entrails case”. In what seems to be a coordinated offensive, 143 priests from the evangelical organisation Universal Church of God’s Kingdom initiated individual claims for compensation from him in every state of Brazil except the one in which he lives. This is a first-hand account of the personal toll that this harassment – sometimes called ‘lawfare’ – takes on journalists.
16 June 2020, Tuesday
At 4.55pm, during another afternoon of lockdown procrastination, I tweet: “The Brazilian will only be free when the last Bolsonaro is hanged with the entrails of the last priest of the Universal Church”. It’s a paraphrase of the saying attributed to the illuminists Voltaire and Diderot, but it was originally conceived by French priest Jean Meslier (1664-1729). Over the centuries, the saying has been continuously reinvented by people across the ideological spectrum. The original phrasing reads: “Mankind will only be free when the last king is hanged with the entrails of the last priest”.
The illuminist saying came to me out of the blue. I was reading an article about the federal government’s communication funds, earmarked for radio and TV stations belonging to large evangelical churches. The same right-wing electoral fortresses that are threatening to drive Brazil over a cliff-edge. Outraged by the news, I satirically rewrote the phrase as many others did throughout history. It was impromptu, like many of the throw-away comments that end up on social media. Just as someone might doodle on a restaurant napkin, or spit when passing a general’s statue in a public square.
I knew I was not alone. A good part of Twitter’s content is reactions: insults and mockery of politicians, and those in positions of authority more generally. Social media seems to lend itself particularly well to this use of profanity as catharsis – and to a more base instinct as well. I remember a study conducted by a British psychologist proving that insults increase our capacity to endure pain. He ordered the study’s participants to make two lists: the first of expletives (the kind used when we hit our finger with a hammer); the second with only neutral words. Afterwards, he ordered the participants to put their hand in a bucket of ice. The ones who read the list of swear words were able to last almost 50% longer with their hands in ice. What’s more, the pain they felt was less intense. Richard Stephens, of Keele University in Britain, says that cursing produces a response to natural stress, as well as an increase in adrenaline. All of this leads to a “stress-induced anaesthesia”.
Nevertheless, this stress-induced anaesthesia isn’t always worth it. I leave the computer to do other stuff and, when I return to Twitter, I am met with hundreds of enraged followers of the president. In the following hours, they invade my other inboxes with more insults and death threats. These attacks are coming from bots, human beings – and some missing link somewhere in between.
I explain the quote in a thread and I delete the original tweet, following the advice of a writer friend who also happens to be a lawyer. It’s as if I have opened a cesspit beneath me, directly connected to one of Hades’ rivers, or to the sewage system of an entire country. I block the accounts to save myself from drowning in the slurry of zombie sheep. On Facebook, after I’ve disabled comments, they leave mocking smileys on the latest posts. The fascists have found social media to be the ideal tool with which to air all their hate and stupidity. They are only encouraged by the feeling that, finally, someone is listening to their hyena-grunting – even if it can only be communicated through a small, animated, yellow face.
Before going to bed, I take a screenshot of the death threats I’ve received during the day. They’re not the first ones I’ve received in my life and I might just be getting used to them.
18 June, Thursday
“Did you really tweet that?” my editor asks me. I write a fortnightly op-ed for the Brazilian branch of the German network Deutsche Welle. Given the implications, I quickly suggest explaining my satire of a 300 year-old metaphor in a note on the website, or in my next article. He nevertheless rejects the proposal and fires me with the following words: “This incident makes your collaboration with us untenable. Taking to social media to say that people should be hanged is abominable. I don’t care if it’s a quote, a paraphrase or satire.”
The argument is disingenuous coming from someone so educated. It upsets my stomach. I never said that people “should be hanged”, and believing the opposite is to simply disregard figurative language or any capacity for abstraction. This intolerant message hits me even harder than the fascist bombardment over the past two days, I tell my therapist over the phone – the editor’s notification comes to my cell phone during our session.
Half an hour later, Deutsche Welle publishes a press release justifying my sacking. They say that the outlet is opposed to any “hate speech”. This is particularly insensitive, probably even defamatory, especially in the context of the insults used against me since Tuesday. And it’s all resonating within a disinformation campaign promoted by neo-fascist political actors, governing the country with their own abusive and hateful rhetoric. In fact, I’m sure that the German editors and the idiots in the Planalto understand the metaphor in the original illuminist formulation perfectly well: the church and nobility (and their ilk) must be removed from republican power for the good of the people. The question is not one of rhetoric, but politics: the attack against me is designed to intimidate and silence critical voices. In my case, through the medium of a nervous German company.
Deutsche Welle’s reaction is a success. One of the president’s sons, Eduardo Bolsonaro, highlights the company’s decision on social media. He adds: “There is still hope in some parts of the media” and threatens me with a lawsuit. The neo-fascist legislators and their henchmen celebrate publicly. The turmoil on my profile, which two days after the tweet had died down, explodes again. Writers, journalists and editors show solidarity, dumbfounded, and they too are ambushed by the odious mob. I spend the afternoon sitting motionless on the sofa, laptop on my knees, scrolling through the mounting vitriol against me. There are videos, offensive memes of my face, promises to take me to court, and death threats. I can’t recall any other occasion when reading something made me feel physically sick – well, apart from some passages from Notes from the Underground by Dostoevsky, when I was a teenager.
Sooner or later, this government will end. As it always does. But these individuals will still inhabit the world, just like before.
That evening my therapist sends me a message: “I’m going on holiday next week. I’ll be back in August”.
19 June, Friday
I wake up and start talking to my two best left-wing friends, both brave and inveterate human rights activists. When I tell L. about what’s going on, the first thing she says is: “you still don’t think you’re wrong, João Paulo?”
The stab in the back comes from where I least expect it. I try to counter it by talking about the litany of offenses by the hands of those on the right (now apparently insignificant), and saying that we’re looking at a dispute that is not only ideological, but also rhetorical.
L replies over a nervous two minute voice note: “I didn’t like your tweet. I think it was too much. I don’t understand who you were writing that tweet for. Didn’t you think about the context? You’re a public man, you have influence. It’s obvious that this was going to have repercussions.” The message goes on.
There are situations that do not lend themselves to debate. There’s no “but” in a moment like this. L. doesn’t have to agree with what I wrote: what’s at stake is something more serious. It’s always sad to lose a friendship over politics – but at the same time, there’s never a good reason.
21 June, Sunday
On Friday, G. and I take the car and leave for the south of Minas. She’s looking for land in the middle of the country. For some elites, the big cities have lost their status, their material and spiritual comfort.
On the road, to distract ourselves, we look at the profiles of the people sending requests to follow me on Instagram. There are hundreds of them. We see their photos, taken in temples, shopping centres, cars; at birthdays, football games, weddings and baptisms. They wear sunglasses, uniforms, suits, kimonos, floor-length white gowns. As if G. and I are bouncers at a club, we exclude the majority on the following criterion: if the person might want to kill me.
Afterwards I give her a glimpse into the horror of my inbox, where the president’s supporters send me pictures of their knives and firearms, calling me a parasite, a communist, a tramp, a drug addict, a demon, an outcast from hell. “Who do you think you are to talk about the president?” He threatens me with the Portuguese equivalent of “When you’re in prison, don’t drop the soap”. They claim to have contacts (they always have contacts) and they threaten to hang me, dismember me, disembowel me and rip out my tongue.
29 June, Monday
Today, during the government’s weekly press conference, a journalist asked Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman if my sacking had political motivations. Visibly uncomfortable, the spokesman said that he couldn’t comment on the matter at this juncture.
Colleagues and ex-colleagues at Deutsche Welle have written to me from Germany to show solidarity. There are rumours that, to keep their posts, diplomatic officials must offer proof of their loyalty. Perhaps my head is just that.
The paraphrasing of an illuminist proverb by a dark-humoured, communist writer becomes an affaire d’Etat in a press conference in Berlin. All the while, since the start of the electoral campaign, members of a far-right government in Brazil threaten to execute their opposition, an act more akin to a militia. Bolsonaro gives a speech by video-link to thousands of supporters, threatening to arrest, purge or kill “reds” and “petralhas” (a derogatory term for Worker’s Party’s members). Bolsonaro carries on to say: “These red outlaws will be banned from our homeland. Either they go overseas, or they go to jail… Petralhada, you’ll all go to the edge of the beach. It will be a cleaning like that never seen before in the history of Brazil”. The “edge of the beach”, a Bolsonaro aide later confirmed, was a reference to a Navy base at Restinga da Marambaia, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, where the Brazilian military dictatorship tortured, killed and disappeared dissidents.
To make matters worse, those in power use fascistic and Nazi slogans on social media. These include “Brazil above all”, an adaptation of Hitler’s phrase Deutschland über alles (Germany above all), and “Work, union and truth will make you free”, a reinvention of the slogan Arbeit macht frei (work liberates), hung above the entrance of Nazi concentration camps. Not to mention “Ya hemos pasado!“, a phrase used by the President’s foreign affairs advisor. And if that weren’t enough, there was the former Culture Secretary cosplaying as Goebbels in a video for the national arts prize. Then there was the brazenness of economy minister Paulo Guedes, nominally quoting Nazi’s economic minister Hjlamar Schacht as a role model, referring to Hitler’s economic reconstruction brought about by a servile and militarised workforce.
It’s all ridiculous – but in no way amusing.
26 July, Sunday
At the end of the day, I reply to an email from a German lawyer recommended by a Deutsche Welle journalist. We are filing a freedom of information (FOI) request, calling for the company to share all the messages exchanged in relation to my termination. According to European law, I have the right to access any documents from public bodies bearing my name. After that, we intend to request a public apology, correcting their idiotic press release, and that Deutsche Welle pay me an indemnization.
24 August, Monday
After a couple of weeks trying to forget the whole “entrails” matter, I learn from Folha de S. Paulo outlet that a Federal public prosecutor, Federico de Carvalho Paiva, ruled in my favour in Brasilia, closing a criminal case against me that I didn’t know about. An extract:
“The message originally published on Twitter is the product of artistic expression of a renowned Brazilian writer. The writer used the figurative phrase to make a legitimate criticism of the current President of the Republic. Even if the criticism might be considered rude or offensive, it is relevant to note that the position serves a public function and is subject to public criticism. It entails the exercise of freedom of expression, which cannot be cut short by ignorant individuals incapable of understanding hyperbole. In the specific case, the message was written in a figurate sense, with the writer using a text of prominent French philosopher and writer Diderot. The right to intellectual and artistic freedom has a constitutional origin and cannot be threatened by criminal law. The country lived through twenty years of censorship and the current constitutional order safeguards pure criticism freedom with regards to those in power.”
Reading the decision, I’m reminded of the last time I showed up in the crime section of a newspaper. It was when I was declared dead (by mistake, until corrected later) after police in Rio de Janeiro found a body with my birth certificate in the pocket. Just as the police files on the investigation into my death can be read as a paratext of my novel I Found Out I Was Dead, these court documents will turn into paratextual elements of a new book based on my recent journals.
1 September, Tuesday
The German lawyer gets in touch to say that Deutsche Welle is refusing to honour my FOI request. But reading between the lines, this might be good news: if they’re refusing, it’s because they have something to hide. Since we’re still in pre-judicial communications, the lawyer says that the best way to proceed is to reach out to the German courts, which means legal costs. The idea of dropping the case doesn’t even cross my mind.
22 September, Tuesday
Occasionally, I remember the threats and warnings that the Universal Church supporters sent to my inbox, promising to sue me. I Google my full name. I discover within minutes that eight evangelic priests from different states are suing me for defamation. The damages requested vary from 10 thousand to 20 thousand Reais (circa £1,300 to £2,600 GBP). All of them were filed on the basis of the ’entrails’ tweet, riffing off Meslier, and two of them mention police investigations.
24 September, Thursday
I go to the shopping centre to get a new –and useless (at least until Brazil stops being one of the pandemic’s global hotspots) – passport. The new period of validity is of ten years, but I imagine I will not use it as much as the previous one.
I spend the rest of the day talking with lawyers recommended by friends. I try to find pro bono, i.e. free, defence. According to the latest from one of them, there are now 17 civil lawsuits in addition to the criminal proceedings. They’re from six different states, in municipalities in the middle of nowhere like Tomar do Geru (Sergipe) and Ouro Preto do Oeste (Rondônia), all of them filed by Universal Church priests. Since the small claims courts require the presence of the defendant or their lawyer, it’s an orchestrated attempt to drive their dissenting enemy crazy or bankrupt.
You have to play the game to understand why you’re playing it.
26 September, Saturday
I wake up to the following message from one of my lawyers: “I swept all the country’s Courts and found 77 proceedings against you, all of them in small claims courts and all of them a variation within the same parameters you already know. Although the search wasn’t focused on mapping the proceedings, I found at least two interim measures: one in Rio de Janeiro ordering the allegedly illegal content to be deleted, and a rejection of a similar interim measure in the State of Acre. The proceedings are spread out across at least 19 states, in all the country’s regions, from Acre in the North to Rio Grande do Sul in the South. The action is clearly coordinated.”
The Universal Church is a billion-dollar organisation, with branches in practically every municipality of the country, weaponising the Brazilian justice system against me. So not only is it impossible to defend myself, I don’t even think it would be enough to do so; they can simply come up with another hundred lawsuits the next day. To avoid repeating this experience for other people, the goal would be to transform this case into a condemnation of judicial harassment. Judicial harassment, or ‘lawfare’, is the abusive or illegitimate use of the law to persecute and destroy someone. This type of bad faith mass litigation has been used to not only stifle criticism in Brazil, but also to sow fear by creating a constant threat against freedom of expression.
That night, in São Paulo, I walk through the Rua Augusta to Praça Roosevelt. People without facemasks, crowded bars. I sit in the only empty bar, and my beer doesn’t go down well. Afterwards I go with P. to a party in a mansion in Jardim Europa. When I get home, I cannot sleep and I run to the toilet. I cannot remember the last time I threw up this much.
30 September, Wednesday
I spend the afternoon talking with a public defender, a human rights lawyer, a criminal lawyer and a civil lawyer. Within the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, I discover that there are more than three ongoing investigations, one of them at the Attorney General’s Office. I feel like my case is a hot potato: not even the public defender’s office can face this attack. Human rights organisations are still studying it. The total damages to be paid now amount to more than one million reais (£133,000 GBP). I feel strangely relieved that I don’t have any assets.
3 October, Saturday
A lawyer updates me: there are at least 83 lawsuits. The number is an underestimate, because some court websites are out of service. Hot under the collar, I read some of the first pages of the lawsuits, all of which are very similar. Adults whose main source of work is a book, the Bible – full of metaphors much more violent than Meslier’s – here, in these documents, pretend to not understand figurative language.
I keep trying to find support from international organisations or law firms willing to work pro bono to defend me against this bad faith offensive, in all the senses of the word, litigation. If I had the time and resources, I’d go to one of those places out in the sticks in Brazil to defend myself and try to have an open and sincere conversation with these people. It’s the only possible tourism open to a Brazilian during the pandemic. Not to mention it would make a great road-trip movie.
8 October, Thursday
Real estate suspense as I wait for the signature of a rental contract after months looking for a place. An investment to stay in Brazil, and what a time to make it! Folha de S. Paulo interviews me about the lawsuits. Perhaps the case needs more visibility to pull at the heartstrings of a firm or an idealistic lawyer. Everyone I’ve talked to has advised me to keep count of the lawsuits, but beyond that they get cold feet and never offer to defend me. The consensus among lawyers seems to be that the case is impossible to defend. And it is, in as much as I have neither the economic or logistic capacity to defend myself in all those provinces. They suggest that the only way out might be to launch a counterattack. How we’d do that we still don’t know.
13 October, Tuesday
The media outlet Folha published a piece on Friday about the “entrails lawsuits”, as I’ve now started calling them. Fellow writers sign a letter in support, joined by renowned associations. Among them are ABI (the Brazilian Press Association) and UBE (the Brazilian Union of Writers). Friends in Europe write to me, telling me to come and join them, or “go and write fiction and be happy in a place that respects your intelligence.” I don’t come or go: I can’t go anywhere now.
Several institutions and lawyers reach out to me. They talk about bad faith litigation; how it’s an attack on justice, a violation of procedural good faith. On a press release published in Folha, the Universal Church creates confusion by saying they don’t have anything to do with the coordinated lawsuits. Not only do they have very similar wording (sometimes even identical, despite being in distant States like Rondonia and Minas Gerais), they are written in legalese, even though they are signed by the preachers of that same church out in the countryside, distant from the hand of God. I don’t imagine it’ll be difficult to prove this procedural hustle and to start a case from there.
14 October, Wednesday
A meeting with a lawyer in a luxurious law firm in Paulista Avenue. Floor to ceiling windows allow you to see the shell of the building mid-construction next door, where workers wear blue jumpsuits. On the table, more iterations of the lawsuit, albeit in different states and signed by different preachers. There are at least half a dozen directors in this church, spread throughout the country, in very distant regions. It’s surreal: preachers from cities like Caixas (MA), Pacajus (CE) and Montes Claros (MG) assert that they’ve heard the same provocation on the street: “Hey preacher, so you’ve become famous, huh? Are they going to hang the Bolsonaros with your entrails?”
Before I’ve even stepped through the front door, I receive a picture of a precautionary measure on my phone. It was granted by a judge in Campos dos Goytacazes, in Rio de Janeiro State. The judge orders the “removal and/or blocking of the profile @jpcuenca on Twitter”. The judge justifies the speedy decision because “awaiting the regular proceeding would have serious risks to the moral and religious integrity [of the claimant] that cannot be allowed.” According to the lawyer, as long as I’m not notified, we still have time. They don’t have my address. I decide to laugh off the ridiculous decision. The lawyers update me: it’s 111 lawsuits now, and counting.
18 October, Sunday
The newspaper El País published a piece in their Sunday edition. The headline reads: “The judicial crusade of 111 evangelic preachers against a Brazilian writer for a tweet”. I barely recognise myself in the picture published: I look older.
Some stories are good to remember, even if they were a terrible experience to live through. Others are horrible to live through or to remember.
A colleague offers to put me in touch with an American network for assisting journalists in danger. A friend of a friend, a correspondent in the Middle East, writes to me: “in the worst case scenario, some hateful idiot may even want to shoot you”.
He continues: “I encourage you to move away to Buenos Aires or, better still, to Montevideo, where you can continue breathing out of the line of fire. From my paramilitary perspective, I think it’s important to have discrete professional security at your side to help you out. If you want me to make some calls, let me know. Hold tight and good luck.”
I thank the writer and the Zapatista comrade, but I think it’s overkill. I get one of the lawyers I was talking with to engage on my defence pro bono, but we’re still hoping for support from an international organisation. There are conversations about defence strategies, WhatsApp groups, concerned friends. Whenever I forget about the case for even a brief moment, I receive another encouraging message about it. I miss deadlines for projects, I cannot read anymore nor, more importantly, write the book that I should be working on.
26 October, Monday
Today PEN international, PEN America and PEN Brazil publish a joint letter supporting me. The tone is firm, and the weight of those institutions is hefty, even in remote dysfunctional democracies like ours. Yesterday SVT, Swedish State TV, aired an interview with me recorded in Rio back in August. The video shows me walking through the streets of Copacabana with a facemask, shirt and shoes, like an alien. The background shows Brazilians playing futevolei in the sand. I see myself talking about the recent developments under a cloudy sky and I can only think that if I were to leave the country at this point, the defeat would look enormous.
The lawyer updates me: it’s now 130 lawsuits, with damages coming to over two million Reais (£265,000 GBP). But this isn’t the point anymore: the numbers make no difference.
19 November, Thursday
On the entrails case, yesterday an editor from the New York Times got in touch. We spent an hour on the phone and there’s a photoshoot scheduled for Saturday morning. They want it for Sunday’s edition. But the Times is like so many stories: I’ll only believe it when I see it. Today I found out in Folha that the Brazilian Press Association (ABI) intervened in my case before the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office. They will ask for a civil investigation.
The note says: “ABI requests that the investigation receives depositions from Cuenca and bishop Edir Macedo from the Universal Church. The association calls for the inclusion of legal representatives from Folha, the O Globo diary and The Intercept Brasil to provide the court with an insight into the impact of judicial harassment on journalists. The association also requests that all the lawsuits filed by members of the Church be reviewed by the courts so they can explain their motivations. Finally, the ABI asks that the Prosecutor hold a public hearing to debate the use of procedural harassment against freedom of expression.”
I think about which tie I’ll wear. Maybe a red one with a small Exú?
22 November, Sunday
“Mr. Cuenca said he hoped the ordeal would lead to changes in the justice system that prevent similar legal barrages. And perhaps the whole thing will become the subject of his next creative project”, wrote the New York Times. The sad news came out in the North American paper as if from some melancholic third world zoo. They dedicate almost an entire page to me, with a full picture at the top – an exotic character in the window holding a cup of coffee, signs of a hangover etched into his face.
11 December, Friday
I wake up to some news that makes me run to catch a flight to Rio de Janeiro: my 98 year-old grandmother has died overnight. I take charge of all the burial paperwork so as to protect my mother, who needs to self-isolate at home.
The memories I have of doña Carmen Beatriz da Cunha Bastos, my grandmother, are my earliest: full afternoons listening to operas like Madame Butterfly, Aida, Tosca and, of course, Carmen, loudly and with her translating sections of the script, explaining details from the plot. I was 5 years old, with a tendency towards tragedy – that music-loving, passionate kid is still inside me. At 12, I would join her wearing moccasins and cashmere, like a 70 year old. Afterwards, we would drink tea in the Persian columns in the Salao Assyrio, the cinematographic restaurant in the basement of the theatre. My grandmother taught me to eat with silverware, to use French words, to kiss ladies on the hand and, above all, to recognise the elegance of someone who doesn’t need gestures or language to command a room – a feline attitude that I would try to emulate, unsuccessfully, throughout my life.
Hall number 3 at the Memorial do Carmo is completely empty. There’s nothing but a small box full of white chrysanthemums. My grandmother seems dazzling as always. While I sit next to her, waiting for the allotted time of her cremation, I receive the news on my phone that an NGO has offered to defend me. The NGO, Media Defence, provide legal assistance to journalists and independent media under threat for their reporting. I make a quick conversion of the amount offered in pounds to cover the cost of the cases and I can’t help but think that I’ve never received anything like this as an advance for a book. My lawyer updates me again: it’s now 143 lawsuits amounting to a total of 2.4 million Reais (£523,000 GBP).
When I go out to join my grandmother at the crematorium’s door, the hall is full of soldiers wearing camouflage and red berets. They’re quite young and all of them carry guns, except for a small group carrying musical instruments over their shoulders. I ask an employee who they are burying. He responds that he is not allowed to tell me.
Out of the 143 lawsuits launched against João Paulo Cuenca, 86 have either been successfully defended or dismissed. Cuenca is hoping to produce and record a documentary about the ordeal, opening up a dialogue with those pastors who launched lawsuits to better understand their point of view.
To read more stories like this, keep an eye on our “Hope and Resilience” series. Our piece on Claudia Duque’s fight against state surveillance in Colombia can be found here. The article on Kelly Duda’s involvement in the contaminated blood scandal, written for Index on Censorship, can be found here.
If you are a journalist in need of support, please click here.
Call for Consultants: Independent Evaluation of ‘Empowering Women in Digital Rights Advocacy’ project
The consultancy We are looking to engage an experienced evaluation consultant to carry out an interim and final evaluation of one of our projects. The project, called Empowering Women in Digital Rights Advocacy (EWDRA), is based in sub-Saharan Africa and began late last year. In addition, the consultant will conduct independent research with an intersectional […]
Spyware and freedom of expression Encryption is a valuable tool for freedom of expression online. It allows journalists, lawyers, human rights activists, and citizens to communicate securely. In recent years however, journalists around the world have experienced increasing digital surveillance, despite encryption becoming more accessible. In particular, investigative journalists uncovering corruption, abuse of power, and […]
Role Summary The Grants Officer plays a key role at Media Defence, administering the grants that we make to partner organisations, helping assess grant applications, and helping with communications via social media and other channels. As Grants Officer, you will also manage and administer our financial grants and non-financial support to journalists facing legal action, […]