Brazilian President Michel Temer is embroiled in a fast-moving press censorship case after he obtained a court order forcing the country's two largest newspapers to delete reporting on the hacking of his wife's cellphone.
Last May, Brazilians learned that a hacker in Sao Paulo named Silvonei de Jesus Souza was on trial for breaking into the phone of First Lady Marcela Temer. Some media said they had obtained access to case documents and that Mr. Souza had been attempting to extort Ms. Temer 300,000 reais ($126,000 Canadian) over information or possibly images that he said would badly damage her husband.
At that point, Mr. Temer was acting president of Brazil and the impeachment of the elected president, Dilma Rousseff, was underway; he was sworn into the presidency in September.
Mr. Souza was arrested after a police operation involving 40 officers, run out of the federal Ministry of Justice; he was sentenced to five years and 11 months in prison with a swiftness that was nothing short of astounding for the slow-moving Brazilian justice system.
Mr. Souza was also convicted of having attempted to extort Ms. Temer's brother, Karlo Tedeschi – the hacker began by targeting Mr. Tedeschi, pretending to be Ms. Temer in urgent need of money, and he sent the cash. Then Mr. Souza realized whose phone he had broken into, and raised his demands.
The details of the case were kept sealed at the time, and the story largely died away – overshadowed by the tempestuous political drama unfolding in Brasilia. But months later, the publication ban expired, in a normal judicial process, and the two national newspapers, among others, sought those details out.
On Feb. 10, Folha de Sao Paulo published an article describing what it said were some of the messages sent by the hacker to Ms. Temer through the text-messaging service WhatsApp. Rio-based O Globo followed shortly after with a similar article.
Folha said that Mr. Souza warned that he had obtained materials that, if he were to make them public, would severely damage Mr. Temer and "drag his reputation through the mud." Earlier interest in the hack had been focused on speculation that Mr. Souza had obtained naked photographs. Ms. Temer is 33, to her husband's 76, and is a former beauty queen, whose May-December relationship with her husband has provoked considerable interest in Brazil.
Now, however, there is growing speculation here that the hacker may have had access to messages pertaining to her husband's political affairs: he and key members of his cabinet have been tied in dozens of plea-bargain testimonies to the vast Lava Jato corruption case.
Folha published several of the WhatsApp text messages sent by the hacker. They include warnings from Mr. Souza – "If you're changing your mind, the time is now, tomorrow you're not going to be able to change your mind!!!", who says he has copied all her images and personal files; and also increasingly shrill replies from Ms. Temer who insists she is "a good person" with nothing to hide. But she writes, "No one from the press can have access to stolen emails!"
Both President Temer and his wife deny that the hacked material contained any evidence of criminal or improper behaviour. But even before Folha had the report on its website, the president's lawyers filed a request in a state court in Brasilia for a judicial order requiring Folha to remove their reports and refrain from publishing anything further about the contents of the phone messages.
The presidency was apparently alerted that Folha intended to publish when the paper asked Mr. Temer's office for comment on the story.
The court issued the order, in Marcela Temer's name – and also imposed a fine of R50,000 ($21,000 Canadian) for each day the media failed to comply. The order was subsequently expanded to apply to O Globo.
On Tuesday morning, Folha reported that it had just been served with that judicial order – explaining, under the headline "Judge censors Folha report on the extortion of Marcela Temer" that the paper had now deleted the original article. Shortly thereafter, O Globo removed its article with a similar explanation. Both newspapers say they are appealing the order.
"The censorship imposed on O Globo and Folha de Sao Paulo … is not only a serious violation of the right freedom of the press, laid out in the Constitution, but also damages society's need for information and does not help the government itself," O Globo said in an editorial. "Suppressing the work of professional journalism only stimulates speculation and rumours in social media, preventing news from reliable sources from being published."
On Tuesday morning the New York-based online publication The Intercept, which publishes a Brazilian edition, published all of the information from the articles, in both Portuguese and English, and images of the WhatsApp messages from the court documents, arguing that the details are strongly in the public interest.
The Intercept points out that while the newspapers have been ordered to take down their stories, the court records containing the messages remain public, available to any lawyer, or anyone else who subscribes to the court's website.
Asked by journalists on Monday if the case constituted censorship, President Temer snapped, "There was no such thing, you know there wasn't."
Folha invoked the dark days of Brazil's military dictatorship in its article about the judicial order.
"Everyone who has the role of informing people is responsible for the truthfulness and relevance of what is published; those who feel they have been victim of prejudice have every right to go to court," the newspaper said in an editorial on Tuesday. "But censorship beforehand is unreasonable, something that should be left to the memory of authoritarian regimes."
The Brazilian Press Association called the court decision "a restriction of press freedom" and said it "hopes that the order will be reviewed or amended immediately, guaranteeing the media the constitutional right to bring information of public interest to the population."