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Judicial harassment results in record 1.5 million euro fine for Lisbon weekly

Opting for judicial harassment: The case stemmed from a report published in February 2010 in 'Sol' implicating Portugal Prime Minister José Sócrates (above) and other people close to the prime minister in an attempt by Portugal Telecom to buy a controlling stake in TVI, a privately-owned television station that is critical of the government.

Lisbon-based weekly Sol has been fined 1.5 million euros for defying a court injunction obtained by Rui Pedro Soares, the Portuguese government's former representative on the board of the national telecommunications company Portugal Telecom, not to publish details from phone conversations recorded in a police surveillance operation.

Soares obtained the injunction on February 11 in response to a report published six days before in Sol implicating him, Prime Minister José Sócrates and other people close to the prime minister in an attempt by Portugal Telecom to buy a controlling stake in TVI, a privately-owned television station that is critical of the government.

The decision to fine Sol 50,000 euros for each of a total of 30 violations of the injunction was issued by a Lisbon court on May 25 and was confirmed on appeal on July 1. The courts accepted the argument that publication of the recordings violated the confidentiality of both a judicial investigation and Soares' own professional dealings. The courts also fined Sol editor José António Saraiva 110,000 euros and each of the two journalists who covered the story, Felícia Cabrita and Ana Paula Azevedo, 50,000 euros.

In separate action, Soares is suing Sol for 400,000 euros in damages and between 2.5 and 3 million euros in loss of earnings on the grounds that he was forced to resign from the Portugal Telecom board because the outcry resulting from the original Sol article in February. The case will come to trial in next month.

Paris-based press freedom group Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) expressed outrage at the court rulings. Sol's story was clearly a subject of public interest and publication of the transcripts of the phone tapping operation was perfectly legitimate as they constituted evidence in support of the weekly's allegation, it said.

"A privately-owned TV station's purchase by state company is no insignificant matter and any media coverage of the subject is entirely legitimate. It was up to the judicial system, not Sol, to ensure the confidentiality of its investigation. Sol was under no obligation. The same goes for the claim that Sol violated the confidentiality of Soares' professional dealings. Only those involved in professional and business dealings are required to respect their confidentiality. Outsiders are not, " RSF said.

"Publication of the transcripts of phone tapping operations is often a matter of great public interest and is one of the cornerstones of investigative journalism. The Italian media were up in arms last month about a bill that threatened their legitimate right to publish telephone tap transcripts or certain documents linked to judicial investigations. Widely criticised internationally, the Italian government has postponed putting the bill to a vote. Will the same be necessary in Portugal in order to get European governments to finally recognise that the media have an undeniable right to use evidence from judicial investigations that come into their possession?

"The size of the fine imposed on Sol is surreal and out of all proportion. The judicial proceedings brought against the weekly and its journalists are clearly intended to intimidate and to put it out of business. With extraordinary cynicism, Soares even dare to say that he would be ready to take over Sol if was unable to pay the fines for which he was responsible."

The government's alleged secretive attempts to gain control over certain privately-owned media are particularly worrying, the group said. As a member of the European Union, Portugal has a duty to set an example as regards respect for media independence. This kind of meddling and lack of transparency is completely contrary to European democratic standards. Government meddling in both state and privately-owned media is on the increase in the EU. It undermines the foundations of our political systems and sets a deplorable example that weakens Europe's credibility internationally in relation to the many repressive governments and predators of press freedom.

Five Sol journalists – deputy editor Vítor Rainho and reporters Felícia Cabrita, Ana Paula Azevedo, Luís Rosa and Graça Rosendo – and the newspaper's lawyer, Fátima Esteves, were meanwhile separately accused by the public prosecutor's office on July 20 of violating the confidentiality of a high-profile investigation into an alleged web of political corruption known as “Face Oculta.” They are alleged to have “considerably disrupted the ongoing investigation” by publishing a series of stories that included extracts from telephone tap transcripts.

The department of public prosecutions is proving to be a strange but useful ally for Soares. The new charges are being seen as constituting a case of judicial harassment of Sol designed to force the newspaper to submit to financial and judicial pressure. Its articles about the Face Oculta case and its ramifications did not in any way disrupt the investigation and in fact helped to ensure that it was not shelved.

The series of stories that Sol began publishing on February 5 were based on the transcripts of phone taps that were ordered as part of the judicial investigation into a series of cases of corrupt management of public funds allegedly involving well-known figures close to the ruling Socialist Party – the investigation known collectively as Face Oculta. Among those whose voices are heard in the recordings is Soares, the prime minister's appointee to the board of Portugal Telecom, in which the state holds a sizeable stake.

Based on the content of the transcripts and the suspicions voiced by the investigating judge and prosecutor in charge of the Face Oculta case, Sol ran a story accusing Prime Minister Sócrates of trying to silence his critics in the privately-owned national media. According to Sol, one of the pillars of the strategy was to have been Portugal Telecom's purchase of TVI from its Spanish owner, the Prisa media group, in the summer of 2009. TVI was one of the government's biggest critics in the run-up to the September 2009 parliamentary elections.

The transcripts showed that Soares even went to Madrid in June 2009 to negotiate the terms of the deal between Portugal Telecom and Prisa. Allegedly endorsed by the prime minister, the deal is said to have fallen through a few days later following damaging leaks. Sócrates told parliament he knew nothing about the deal and was opposed to TVI's purchase by Portugal Telecom. But the transcripts published by Sol demonstrated the contrary, and a parliamentary commission was set up to determine whether the prime minister had lied.

However, the commission refused to take account of the phone taps on procedural grounds and, in the paradoxical and surreal findings that it issued in June, it said the prime minister “was aware” of the negotiations between Portugal Telecom and Prisa but “it has nonetheless not been proved that he lied.”

Date posted: August 17, 2010 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 240