Watch Your Tongue: Prejudiced Comments Illegal in Brazil

Taylor Barnes, Christian Science Monitor, December 4, 2012

In an amateur online video, Afonso Henrique Alves Lobato describes how he and fellow members of his Evangelical church snuck into a spiritual center of Umbanda, an Afro-Brazilian faith that venerates deities originating from Africa in services led by a religious figure called a pai de santo.

“I saw a pai de santo, gay, of course, because every pai de santo is homosexual,” the young Mr. Lobato said. “As everyone knows, a [Umbanda] spiritual center is a place where the devil is called upon.”

Brazilian authorities had no tolerance for his remarks. Lobato and his pastor, Tupirani da Hora Lores, who reportedly posted disparaging remarks about other religions online, were swiftly jailed and charged with a crime: religious intolerance.

These men were the first to be jailed for such a crime in Brazil when authorities detained them pre-trial. In July the pair was found guilty and given a sentence of community service and a fine.

“No one should imagine that these religious men are being unfairly punished,” Rio’s prominent crime columnist, Jorge Antonio Barros, wrote in the national O Globo newspaper. “Nobody has the right to disrespect someone else’s religious practices, all the less so in the name of God.”


Brazil’s diverse ethnic and religious makeup is often compared with that of the United States, and tensions run high. It has a legacy of slavery, a marginalized indigenous population, large immigrant clusters, and a majority Christian population that clashes with Afro-Brazilian religions. But Brazil’s approach to “hate speech” is starkly different than that of the US. From arresting an Argentine soccer player for racist shouts during a game, prosecuting a columnist in the Amazon for writing that government officials “could not stand the odor exhaled by Indians,” and ordering YouTube to remove the infamous “Innocence of Muslims“ video due to its potential to incite intolerance—prejudiced comments are simply illegal in Brazil.

Despite a constitutional principle of freedom of expression, Brazilian lawmakers and law enforcement have drawn the line when it comes to agitating racial, religious, or ethnic tensions. {snip}


There are two types of offenses in Brazil when it comes to hate speech. Both are punishable by prison time under the 1990 law, which was passed after two decades of military dictatorship but is increasingly visible today. One has to do with insults directed at a specific person based on their race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality. The second is the expression and encouragement of prejudice toward the same groups in general, as was the case of the Evangelicals.

Supporters say that violent hate crimes are a reality in Brazil and that human dignity is as important a principle as freedom of speech. There’s currently a push to include the protection of sexual orientation under the law as well. {snip}


In 2010 the Pernambuco Bar Association sued law student Mayara Petruso in São Paulo for racist comments on Twitter. She was the first Brazilian to be found guilty of racism expressed over social media when convicted this May. After the election of President Dilma Rousseff in 2010, a wave of anti-northeastern comments struck social networks from opponents who accused the candidate of winning by giving handouts to the poor, especially in Brazil’s economically depressed northeast.

“Give the right to vote to northeasterners and you drown the country of those who worked to support the bums who have a kid so they can get a check,” Ms. Petruso tweeted, in addition to sending messages saying residents of the wealthy state of São Paulo should “drown” a northeasterner.


Daniel Silva, a linguistics professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, says that Brazilians largely do not protest or question the laws against prejudice and that, rather than claiming free speech, defendants typically try to reconstruct their comments as a joke or say they were misunderstood.

But Ricardo Noblat, a popular political columnist who describes himself as a member of the left, warns about the zeal to apply a law that restricts free speech in the name of human dignity but in practice is used to target so-called conservative standpoints.

In a column headlined “The fascism of the well intentioned,” Mr. Noblat defended ultra-conservative Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, who routinely speaks out on culture war issues such as abortion rights and a proposed “gay kit” that would be distributed in public schools to counter homophobic attitudes. Noblat noted that former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva famously said that the global financial crisis had been caused by “blonde people with blue eyes” without an outcry of racism over his comments.

“I think this [curbing of free speech] disqualifies the Brazilian democracy,” Noblat says. He adds that after a two-decade military dictatorship, which ended in 1985, Brazil does not have a deeply rooted culture of Democracy. Freedom of speech, Noblat says, “only worries a small part of society.”


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