Media and journalism issues

Brazil court denies fact-checker’s plea to dismiss criminal complaint filed by fake news site

Gelo Gonzales

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Brazil court denies fact-checker’s plea to dismiss criminal complaint filed by fake news site

AOS FATOS. A photo of the Brazilian news website, August 25, 2023

Gelo Gonzales/Rappler

A 2020 article by Aos Fatos found that Jornal da Cidade Online had ties to the widow of Carlos Ustra, the first military officer convicted for torture and kidnapping during Brazil's dictatorship

MANILA, Philippines – The State Court of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil has denied the request of a fact-checker to dismiss the criminal complaint filed against him by a fake news site that his organization had investigated.

Jornal da Cidade Online earlier filed criminal complaints against Aos Fatos executive director Tai Nalon, accusing him of “defamation and unfair competition for investigating the dissemination and monetization of fake news by the website,” Aos Fatos said in a statement.

Aos Fatos is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter. Founded in 2015, Aos Fatos has “established themselves as a reference in fact checking in Latin America” and has become “known for producing tools for battling disinformation” according to Poynter

Jornal da Cidade Online is a website currently under investigation by Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court and the Supreme Federal Court for “participating in and financially benefiting from disinformation campaigns” according to Aos Fatos. 

The case stems from an April 2020 investigative article of Aos Fatos, which revealed that Jornal da Cidade Online “shared monetization tools and strategies via Google AdSense with a series of portals including Verdade Sufocada, maintained by the widow of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra,” according to an Aos Fatos statement.  

The article has been censored since June 2023 following a decision by the Court of Justice of Rio Grande do Sul. 

Ustra, who died in 2015, was a military officer convicted of kidnapping and torture during Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985.

Aos Fatos’ lawyers said that Jornal de Cidade Online, with its criminal complaint, “tries to coerce a journalist into silence due to dissatisfaction with a report that followed all investigation protocols, including contacting the other party to hear their version of the facts.”

They added that “the animus of merely reporting a fact eliminates the intent to offend, under penalty of objective criminal liability and criminalization of the very activity of journalism.”

Investigations on Jornal da Cidade, support for Aos Fatos

In the court investigations probing Jornal da Cidade Online, Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes stated that proof pointed to the site being a “true criminal organization, with strong digital activity and nuclei of production, publication, financing, and politics.”

The country’s Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry about Fake News also reported that the site’s owner is part of a group engaged in “deliberate production and exponential dissemination of news known to be false” during the 2022 presidential elections. The court has also ordered demonetization of the site’s YouTube channel for sharing misinformation about electronic voting machines. 

The case of Aos Fatos, one of the six fact-checking partners of Facebook in Brazil, shows the continuing trend of media under attack in many parts of the globe, in a year where Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2023 World Press Freedom Index found that “the environment for journalism is ‘bad’ in 7 out of 10 countries, and satisfactory in only 3 out of 10.” 

Additionally, RSF highlighted how disinformation campaigns have had a massive impact on the world’s right to information: “In 118 countries (two-thirds of the 180 countries evaluated by the Index), most of the Index questionnaire’s respondents reported that political actors in their countries were often or systematically involved in massive disinformation or propaganda campaigns.”

RSF along with journalistic institutions in Brazil condemned the continuation of the case against Aos Fatos as a “blatant attack on the right to access information and the right to inform.”

“Within their duty and right to inform, Aos Fatos and Tai Nalon only reported on the systematic activities of the company, constantly denounced for producing and disseminating disinformation,” said groups Abraji, Ajor, Fenaj, Instituto Vladimir Herzog, Intervozes, RSF, and Tornavoz.

“We hope that the Rio de Janeiro justice system puts an end to this attempt at intimidation and to the chilling effect that this strategy of judicial persecution causes to victims and journalists collectively.” – Rappler.com

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Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.