Sócrates’ defence team in all-out war with national tabloid

As Portugal stays locked in a political no-man’s-land that some have likened to a coup, behind-the-scenes legal machinations have sought to muzzle the country’s national tabloid.

Correio da Manhã had been delighting in inside information on Operation Marquês – the Public Ministry investigation into alleged fraud and corruption involving former Socialist prime minister José Sócrates.

Just as Sócrates’ defence team finally won access to it and started studying the sheaths of alleged evidence against their client, CM was busy publishing detailed daily exposés on what it presented as a convoluted web of deceit and underhand ‘old boy network’ dealings.

The ‘entertainment’ looked like coming to an end as a judge in Lisbon’s 1º section of Civil Instance upheld an embargo prohibiting CM and its TV channel CMTV from publishing anything more emanating from the investigation.

CM instantly announced it would be appealing, which should return things to the way they were before. Certainly today the paper is unrepentant, publishing a full-page announcement showing the mock-up of a front-page blanked out by censorship.

“We will continue … to inform” are the only words visible, with two images of Sócrates and Passos Coelho in separate corners.

The issue – a bit like Portugal’s current political impasse – centres on the rights and freedoms of a democracy.

As one of the legal brains behind the Penal Code, Costa Andrade explained, the ban imposed on CM and CMTV is “an act of censure” and as such “clearly unconstitutional”.

“To prohibit news on any specific area is unconstitutional on various levels,” he explained. “It violates press liberty … it violates the right of the community being informed and it violates the right of journalists to freely expressing their thoughts, investigate facts and disseminate news on those facts.”

André Ventura, a professor in Penal Law, has also affirmed the ruling was “an unconstitutional decision that takes us back 30 or 40 years. It is one of the worst decisions that I have ever read”.

Curiously, the judge who upheld the embargo is one nominated “during the Socialist government” of 2009 – which was led by Sócrates, writes CM today, as eight pages are set aside to what is now an all-out war.

The paper claims that in 2009 Sócrates was involved in a bid to buy-up the newspaper, as it “irritated” him.

A director of Portugal Telecom, as well as a former Socialist minister and then banker – fellow co-defendant in Marquês, Armando Vara – were involved in the abortive deal, writes CM – including a quote from an Aveiro judge to suggest there were “strong indications that people involved in the plan tried even to condition the actions of the President of the Republic”.

It may thus be a case of Sócrates’ defence being hoist by their own petard. Only time will tell.

Certainly other papers are not holding back over the issue. Lusa director Rogério Gomes has declared the judge’s decision to muzzle CM as “miserable” and something that should not be accepted “in any way at all”; Observador’s director José Manuel Fernandes has said the ruling “opens Pandora’s Box”, while Diário de Notícias has simply informed its readers that now Armando Vara’s daughter Bárbara has been made the 10th official defendant in the investigation, over the appearance of €1 million in an offshore bank account she shared with her father.

The money was traced as coming from an offshore account of fellow Marquês defendant, Joaquim Barroca – joint head of construction company Lena. The Public Ministry “attributes” the payment “to the financing made by Caixa Geral de Depósitos to the Algarve resort of Vale do Lobo. In short, the paper summarises, “the money for Vara was a commission paid by Vale do Lobo owners, through the Lena group manager”.

Whether DN will now be receiving legal papers forbidding it to publish any more on the case remains to be seen.

[email protected]