An appeals court in Brazil found American journalist Joe Sharkey guilty yesterday of defamation for his reporting and commentary following the 2006 accident in which 154 died when a Brazilian airliner and a Legacy 600 business jet collided at 37,000 feet over the central Amazon.
Sharkey, on assignment at the time for Business Jet Traveler (an AIN Publications magazine for users of business aviation) was one of seven on the Legacy 600 who survived the collision when the damaged business jet managed an emergency landing at a remote military airstrip in the jungle.
Two judges in a three-judge panel of the Parana Tribunal of Justice voted on Thursday to reverse a lower court’s decision that had dismissed the suit. The lower court said that the plaintiff, a Brazilian widow of a man who died in the crash, had not been personally named or referred to in anything Sharkey had said or written in his reporting in the New York Times or on his personal blog.
The appeals court plans to issue its final ruling by December 1, after the third judge decides. Attorneys for an association representing the plaintiff and some families of the dead claimed victory, noting that the verdict would stand even in a 2-1 decision.
Sharkey, a contributor to Business Jet Traveler who also has been the freelance business travel columnist for 13 years for the New York Times, has denied the charges as “outright fabrications.” He said that the allegedly offensive comments, such as Brazil is the “most idiot of idiots,” were actually culled from thousands of comments made by anonymous Brazilians, often on Brazilian media sites that had merely linked to his blog.
“It’s preposterous for a Brazilian court to claim that it has the jurisdiction to reach into the United States to punish an American for commentary, made in the U.S., that is fully protected by the U.S. First Amendment. That is a very slippery slope,” he told AIN.
Sharkey had outraged Brazilian military and police authorities by arguing that Brazil had made a grave mistake in rushing to criminalize the accident and blame the two American pilots, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, before facts were known. Lepore and Paladino were later convicted of criminal charges, in absentia, in Brazil and originally given prison sentences, later reduced to community service. They are appealing.
The lawsuit claimed that by offending Brazilian authorities, Sharkey caused “dishonor” to every individual citizen. Sharkey has argued that such legal reasoning is a threat to free speech for Americans. “Under that logic, anyone in a foreign country who objects to anything written in the United States could subvert the First Amendment by arguing that an American citizen had written or said something offensive to them or their country,” he said.