Since launching their website, Fala RN, shortly after moving to the town in December 2014, Francisco Costa and Josi Gonçalves have published a series of stories about embezzlement of public funds, nepotism and election fraud involving local politicians.
Those who have filed the 11 lawsuits – seeking a total of more than 200,000 reais (57,000 euros) in damages – include mayor Jaime Calado, elected municipal representatives and municipal secretaries.
As well as judicial harassment, Costa and Gonçalves told RSF they fear for their safety. One of their sources within the town council warned them of possible attempts to intimidate them, including the abduction of their four-year-old son and the use of fabricated evidence to have them arrested.
According to Costa and Gonçalves, local politicians have also pressured Fala RN’s main advertiser to stop buying space on the website.
“We condemn the persecution of Francisco Costa and Josi Gonçalves by the authorities of São Gonçalo do Amarante and we call for the withdrawal of all the complaints against them,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of RSF’s Latin America desk.
“The number of complaints is completely absurd. This is an intimidation campaign designed to silence these journalists and, as such, constitutes a grave violation of freedom of expression. International standards remind that the politician inevitably and knowingly lays himself open to close scrutiny of his by the journalists and the public at large, and he must display a greater degree of tolerance"
The judicial persecution is all the more unjustified because most of Fala RN’s information is taken from official and public sources. This was the case, for example, with an article in 2015 about an investigation by the federal department of prosecution into alleged corruption by municipal education secretary Abel Soares Ferreira, who nonetheless reacted with an immediate lawsuit.
The same goes for a more recent suit filed on 7 December 2016 by former mayor Ítalo Vale Monte, who is seeking 35,200 reais (10,000 euros) in damages because Fala RN reminded its readers that he was removed from office after an auditing court took issue with his financial management.
The current mayor has brought a total of six legal actions against Fala RN, one of them in a connection with a comment that a reader posted on Fala RN’s Facebook page. In Brazil, it is surprisingly common for websites to be sued over comments posed by readers.
Brazil is ranked 104th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.