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UN Rapporteurs Call for Protection of Brazilian Journalist Schirlei Alves

UN Rapporteurs Call for Protection of Brazilian Journalist Schirlei Alves

UN Rapporteurs Call for Protection of Brazilian Journalist Schirlei Alves Amid Defamation Charges Stemming from Rape Trial Coverage

A letter dispatched by UN rapporteurs to the Brazilian Government calls for protective measures for women journalists covering cases of sexual crimes. The letter also denounces the conviction of Brazilian investigative journalist and women’s rights defender, Schirlei Alves. It argues that the use of criminal defamation law to prevent criticism of public figures is contrary to and undermines media freedom.

After reporting on the Brazilian legal system’s revictimization and mistreatment of digital influencer Mariana Ferrer, during a high-profile rape trial, Alves faced severe backlash. This included defamation lawsuits filed against her in 2020 by the Judge and the Prosecutor of the Ferrer case. As a result of these lawsuits Alves was sentenced to one year of open detention and an exorbitant fine of Brazilian real 400,000 (US$81,692). Alves is in the process of appealing the judgment.

In her report on the Ferrer case, Alves exposed instances of abuse of power within the judiciary, highlighting the sexism and humiliation Ferrer faced during the Court proceedings. A wealthy businessman was accused of drugging and raping Ferrer at a party in 2018. During the trial, the accused’s defence attorney attempted to discredit Ferrer and undermine her testimony using sexist tropes and gender stereotypes. According to a report by the Reuters Institute, the defendant was acquitted, on the basis that he could not have known that Ferrer was unable to consent. The prosecutor stated during the trial that the ‘unintentional rape’ of a vulnerable person is not covered by current Brazilian laws and that the case was therefore considered ‘atypical’.

The fallout from Alves’s courageous reporting was severe. In addition to being criminally convicted for reporting on an issue of public interest, she has been persistently threatened and harassed online. This caused immense personal and professional hardship, even forcing her to shut down her social media profiles. In an interview with The Coalition for Women in Journalism, Alves, reflecting on this experience, stated, “my only desire was to expose the truth… and I would do it again. I hope our sufferings lead to change so women don’t endure what we did.”

Despite the challenges she faced, she has remained resolute in her commitment to exposing the truth. Her report on the Ferrer case resulted in a national outcry and led to the passing in 2021 of the Mariana Ferrer Law, which punishes public agents who violate the dignity of survivors or witnesses of sexual violence in court.

Moreover, Alves’s reporting ignited a national conversation about gender inequality and the need for systemic change. By amplifying the voices of women like Mariana Ferrer and spotlighting their experiences, Alves played a crucial role in challenging societal norms and advocating for gender equality.

The letter to the Brazilian government, was signed by UN special rapporteurs Irene Khan, Mary Lawlor, Reem Alsalem and Dorothy Estrada-Tanck. The rapporteurs express their concern over Alves’s trial and conviction, arguing that her reporting aimed to shed light on judicial misconduct rather than defame individuals. The letter also highlights how Schirlei Alves’s reporting led to significant judicial reform.

In addition to addressing Alves’s case, the UN rapporteurs note the broader implications of her persecution for media freedom and the need to protect journalists covering sensitive topics like sexual misconduct. The rapporteurs emphasised the critical role of journalism in fostering accountability and transparency within society. They underscored the need for journalists to operate without fear of reprisal, especially when shedding light on misconduct or abuses of power.

They call on the Brazilian government to provide details on the legal and factual basis for Alves’s defamation charges, and to take measures to ensure a conducive environment for journalists covering such cases without fear of harassment or intimidation. The Brazilian government’s response has yet to be formally published by the UN.

In an Interview with UOL, Schirlei Alves, noted: “I am very happy to know that national and international mechanisms for protecting journalists are acting in my defence, that they are by my side. And I am very hopeful that this unjust decision will be reversed throughout the process.” She also emphasised that the UN’s letter underscores the significance of her case in highlighting threats to press freedom in Brazil.

Alves’s refusal to be silenced serves as a powerful reminder of the vital role that journalists, and in particular women journalists, play in upholding human rights. Yet rather than being recognised for her bravery, she faces a punitive and oppressive sentence.

Media Defence welcomes the joint communication by the four UN Special rapporteurs. We continue to provide legal and financial support to Alves appeal case.

Read the letter.

Irene Khan is UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression

Mary Lawlor is UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

Reem Alsalem is UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, and

Dorothy Estrada-Tanck is Chair-Rapporteur of the UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls

For more information on the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council, click here

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