The New York Times
May 12, 2004

Brazil's Leader Reaffirms Plan to Expel Times Correspondent

pposition leaders, press associations and legal and judicial groups in Brazil today protested the government's decision to expel a New York Times correspondent for a report critical of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, but Mr. da Silva said he would not consider revoking the action.

Speaking in Brasília at a breakfast for political party heads allied to his government, Mr. da Silva said that he would oppose any appeal of the order.

"This journalist will not stay in the country," he said. "He will be legally forbidden to enter."

The article by Larry Rohter, the Rio de Janeiro bureau chief, was published Sunday and reported publicly expressed concerns about the drinking habits of Mr. da Silva. It said, "Some of his countrymen have begun wondering if their president's predilection for strong drink is affecting his performance in office."

The justice ministry said that Mr. Rohter's banning was justified because the article was "lightweight, lying and offensive to the honor of the president."

Mr. da Silva said that the article represented "a malicious assault on the institution of the presidency."

Responding to charges that he was violating internationally recognized protections of freedom of expression, he said, "In any other country, a chief of state would take the same attitude against offenses that are so prejudiced and malicious."

Roberto Busato, president of Brazil's national bar association, protested that Mr. da Silva was resorting to a repressive anti-press law that had last been used during the country's 1964-1985 military dictatorship. Mr. da Silva's left-leaning government contains many ministers who fought the nation's military regime. Mr. da Silva himself, then an outspoken labor leader, was imprisoned.

In an open letter to the government, the Foreign Correspondents Association of São Paulo said, "We do not understand how a democratic government that had many of its leaders persecuted and censured can take such an authoritarian decision, especially since it was the foreign press during the years of military regime that was responsible for attracting international attention to denunciations of the dictatorship."

The president of the Brasília branch of the bar association, Estefânia Viveiros, said the government's decision was "absurd and lamentable. Even if the newspaper erred," she said, "the response from Brazil was far worse."

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Mr. da Silva's predecessor as president, told foreign correspondents at a breakfast meeting in São Paulo today that while he found the New York Times story superficial and frivolous, he was surprised and disappointed by the reaction to it.

"There are frivolous stories published every day," he said. "The expulsion is an exaggeration; it goes against democratic principles."

The chorus of denunciations represented an about-face in Brazilian public reaction, which on Monday had been supportive of the scornful response to the article and had even succeeded in uniting feuding political parties behind the increasingly embattled president. The subsequent decision to seek Mr. Rohter's expulsion provoked a different reaction.

The Força Sindical, the country's second-largest labor union, which had urged the government on Monday to declare Mr. Rohter "persona non grata," issued a statement today condemning the government's effort to throw him out.

"The action taken by the government worries us because it is a reaction typical of authoritarian governments that don't like contrary voices," the union's president, Paulo Pereira da Silva, said. "The government should take care to not forget the principles that guide a mature democracy."

The New York Times said it would oppose the move to expel Mr. Rohter. "Based on consultations with Brazilian legal counsel, we believe there is no basis for revocation of Mr. Rohter's visa and would take appropriate action to defend his rights," said Catherine Mathis, a spokeswoman for the newspaper.

Bill Keller, the executive editor, said Tuesday that if Brazil "intends to expel a journalist for writing an article that offended the president, that would raise serious questions about Brazil's professed commitment to freedom of expression and a free press."

In Washington, Richard A. Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said that the United States had "good relations" with Mr. da Silva and his administration and that the article "does not represent the views of the United States government."

He added, however, that Brazil's action not to renew Mr. Rohter's visa was "not in keeping with Brazil's strong commitment to freedom of the press."

Brazilian newspapers reported that Brazilian diplomats were working to change Mr. da Silva's mind, but the foreign minister, Celso Amorim, declared today that he fully backed the president's action.

"I participated in the decision and I support it," Mr. Amorim told a Senate committee in Brasília. He said, "No one can call this an attack on the freedom of the press."

But Paulo Sotero, the Wasington correspondent of the Estado de São Paulo, disagreed and said that Brazilian journalists were consequently uniting behind Mr. Rohter. "We fought too hard for freedom of the press in this country to allow this kind of nonsense," he said in a telephone interview.

"In Brazil, we are not as obsessed as people in America are with the sex lives and drinking habits of our presidents, but nothing in that article justifies this kind of action against a journalist," he said.

"If the government was worried that Larry Rohter was having a bad effect on the image of the country," he added, "this is much more of a disaster in that sense."