BRASILIA -- President Luis Inacio da Silva came under criticism yesterday for deciding to expel a New York Times correspondent who had written a story saying the Brazilian leader was a heavy drinker.
The newspaper protested the order against correspondent Larry Rohter and said it "would take appropriate action to defend his rights." Rohter's visa was canceled and he was given eight days to leave the country -- the first expulsion of a journalist since the 20-year military dictatorship ended in 1984. The last time a foreign journalist was expelled was in the 1970s.
"It's a political mistake. The government managed to transform a victory into a defeat -- it went from victim to villain. There is no precedent for this during democracy," said Senator Jefferson Peres of the left-leaning Democratic Labor Party.
The article in Sunday's Times, titled "Brazilian Leader's Tippling Becomes National Concern," recapped rumors that had long been circulating among journalists in Brasilia, the capital.
Former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso said in Sao Paulo that both the article and the president's reaction were off-base.
"I have known Lula for 30 years and I can attest to the fact that he is a social drinker only," Cardoso said, using Silva's nickname. "Expelling the reporter who wrote the article, however, is an overreaction."
Senator Sergio Cabral of Rio de Janeiro appealed the expulsion to Brazil's Supreme Court, and a court spokeswoman said a number of judges believed the decision was unconstitutional.
A Times spokeswoman, Catherine Mathis, said that after consultations with legal counsel in Brazil, "we believe there is no basis for revocation of Mr. Rohter's visa and would take appropriate action to defend his rights."
The Times executive editor, Bill Keller, said if Brazil "intends to expel a journalist for writing an article that offended the president, that would raise serious questions about Brazil's professed commitment to freedom of expression and a free press."
In Washington, US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher criticized Brazil's revoking of Rohter's visa.
"First, I'd point out that we do have good relations with President Lula and his government. Obviously, the article in The New York Times did not represent the views of the US government," he said.
But he said Brazil's cancellation of Rohter's visa "is not in keeping with Brazil's strong commitment to freedom of the press."
Foreign Minister Celso Amorim denied it was an attack on press freedom.
"This is not about freedom of speech. It's about [a] story that is libelous, injurious, and false," Amorim said. "We never acted against anyone who criticized Brazil's internal or foreign policy, but it is another thing to offend the honor of the chief of state."