Brazilian Charges Linger For Columnist

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A New York Times columnist says he'll continue fighting a court ruling stemming from his coverage of a 2006 plane crash in Brazil even though the proceedings might seem ludicrous in the U.S. Joe Sharkey was onboard the Legacy 600 business jet that collided with a GOL Boeing 737, causing the airliner to crash and killing all 154 people aboard. Pilots of the damaged Legacy were able to land safely and all seven people aboard were uninjured. The pilots, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, were subsequently convicted of negligence and sentenced to four years of house arrest in absentia. Last week a Brazilian appeals court overturned a lower court's dismissal of defamation charges brought against Sharkey by the widow of one of the GOL passengers. The suit was based on a peculiarity of Brazilian jurisprudence that allows individuals to file suit if the country itself is dishonored by the publication of material deemed defamatory. In a podcast interview with AVweb, Sharkey says the case is difficult to grasp in the U.S. and other countries in which freedom of speech and the press are taken for granted, but it's become an ongoing drain on his time and money as he fights to clear his name, even if it is in Brazil. "The First Amendment means something to me," Sharkey, a longtime beat reporter and columnist, said.

Notwithstanding the premise behind the charges, Sharkey insists he's not guilty anyway. He said he never wrote anything defamatory about Brazil or the plaintiff in the case. Rather, the defamatory comments cited in the action were taken from the thousands of reader comments generated by news stories and other commentary on the accident and the legal fallout. For instance, one of the allegations in the case is that he called Brazil "a banana." Sharkey said that he's pretty sure he could do better than that if he intended to insult the country. Meanwhile, he said a larger issue is the potential impact of the case on his ability to travel and the intrusion on his private life. He said process servers working on behalf of Brazilian lawyers have visited his former home in New Jersey and his current residence in Arizona. "They always come late at night," he said.