World

Mired in corruption scandal, Brazil's politicians weigh bill making prosecuting them harder

  • SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - APRIL 17: Protesters in favor of impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff protest in the streets April 17, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The Lower House of Congress will hold a vote on whether to impeach Rousseff over charges of manipulating government accounts for political gains. (Photo by Victor Moriyama/Getty Images)

    SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - APRIL 17: Protesters in favor of impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff protest in the streets April 17, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The Lower House of Congress will hold a vote on whether to impeach Rousseff over charges of manipulating government accounts for political gains. (Photo by Victor Moriyama/Getty Images)  (2016 Getty Images)

Just two years ago, Brazil enacted the much-admired Civil Framework for the internet, which established a sort of Bill of Rights for internet users and spelled out what information websites and internet service providers could release.

But now, the Civil Framework may get significant modifications – ones that would seem to be a step backward for a country facing a massive government corruption scandal.

According to Alessandro Molon, a congressman from Rio de Janeiro and one of the architects of the original law, the changes will be voted on in Congress soon, and they pose as a real "threat to the civil rights and freedom of internet users."

Some of the evidence in the ever-widening corruption scandal at state-owned oil giant, Petrobras, has been obtained from internet sources. In fact, in the last two weeks alone, the administration of the interim president, Michel Temer, has lost two cabinet members, both targets of Petrobras investigators, because of recorded conversations that were leaked online.

Planning Minister Romero Jucá was taped talking about making a “pact” to end the investigation; and, ironically, the man who became the country’s first Minister of Transparency, Fabiano Silveira, was caught discussing with other politicians how to avoid prosecution. Both men have since resigned.

If P.L. 215/2015 – as the omnibus bill, which includes five proposals introduced by various congressman, is known – is approved, politicians and others who feel they have had their "honor damaged" by someone online or in a social media post could have the objectionable content removed and require internet providers and webpage hosts to turn over the user’s information without the need of judicial authorization.

And the person responsible, if found guilty, would face up to six years in prison.

Deputy Soraya Santos, who is the author of the damaged honor portion of P.L. 215/2015, has said that the proposed changes are not intended to punish critics of politicians, but to protect people from those who publish damaging information online anonymously or under false names.

Santos is in the same political party as Temer and the suspended president of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha, who has been indicted for allegedly taking $40 million in bribes, tax evasion and money-laundering in the Petrobras scandal, and Carlos Affonso Souza, a professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, isn’t convinced by her argument.

"You don’t have to go far to see how the removal of such content can have serious restrictions on freedom of expression,” Souza told Fox News Latino, “and that could benefit some politicians. In general, Congress seems committed to put forward the notion that the internet is a den of illicit activity – a threat rather than a tool that empowers freedom of expression and access to knowledge."

Souza also pointed out that the Civil Framework is held up internationally as a model of how to regulate the rights and duties of websites and internet service providers while protecting users. He says the law has inspired, other countries to adopt new laws establishing internet rights (as in Italy) as well as the decisions of judges in landmark court cases (Argentina).

Also potentially affected would be social media platforms, which have been a hotbed of criticism toward those being investigated and have been used to mount protests in cities across the nation – adding more turmoil to a country already torn over the impeachment proceeding against the woman Temer is standing in for, President Dilma Rousseff.

The timing of a vote on P.L. 215/2015 amid the increased scrutiny and allegations demonstrates a willingness to repress content for "personal reasons," Souza told FNL. "There is a perception of the internet as a threat, and that could lead to more repression."

Carolina Torres is a freelance journalist living in Rio de Janeiro.