Infotainment and fact-checking: The challenges of making comedy with news (Vilela vs. Duvivier)

Dr. João Paulo Capelotti (practicing lawyer, Curitiba, Brazil)

Gregorio Duvivier in 2016 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Last June, a district court in São Paulo ruled that HBO Brazil and a famous Brazilian comedian, Gregorio Duvivier, violated an agribusiness entrepreneur’s reputational rights, and therefore should compensate him with 100,000 reais (approximately 20,000 dollars).

Duvivier, known for his sketches for YouTube channel Porta dos Fundos [Backdoor], which has more than 17 million subscribers, hosts since 2017 a weekly program called “Greg News.” Blatantly inspired by The Colbert Report and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, among others, it brings the comedian behind a desk reading a very elaborate text, with serious journalistic grounds but peppered with a good deal of jokes, for around 30 minutes. After being exhibited at HBO on late Fridays, the episode of the week is made available on YouTube, where it also usually obtains widespread circulation (circa 500,000 to 1 million views for each video, with hits earning twice as much audience). Here is a link for the current 7th season (with audio in Portuguese, subtitles in Portuguese, Spanish and English).

The episode “Em defesa do agro” [something like “Defending agribusiness”], aired on 25 March 2022, was deemed abusive by Antonio José Junqueira Vilela Filho, directly mentioned during an excerpt of the show as one of Brazil’s greatest fraudulent landowners. Duviver called him a “grileiro,” slang for the farmers who first acquire possession of a lot, usually with violence or bribery, and later arrange the papers to build an appearance of legality in the face of the real estate registry office. The show also stated that Vilela had been accused of bringing down more than 300 km² of the Amazon Forest, as well as treating workers of his farms in conditions analogous to slavery, and of being fined by Brazilian conservation agency (IBAMA) in more than 300 million reais – and not paying his debt. The main joke made by Duvivier at Vilela’s expense was a world play with his initials, AJ, as he likes to be called. The sound of the two letters in Portuguese resembles the word “agiota” [loan shark].  

Vilela’s lawsuit claims that the comedian based his jokes and statements in newspaper articles that were proved inaccurate and outdated. His motion brings detailed references to defamation cases brought against The Intercept Brasil, the publisher of those news, in which Vilela prevailed. The lawsuit also brings court rulings from 4 October 2019 and 27 May 2022 exempting the landowner of the deforestation charges due to lack of evidence, and decisions from IBAMA cancelling some of the infraction notices. The central argument of the case brought against Duvivier was that his team was not diligent while conducting the research and fact-checking of his screenplay. Besides, the humorous tone of the show would not shield the offenses thrown at Vilela.

The defendants, on the other hand, stressed that the plaintiff’s name and the facts related to him were mentioned for less than one minute in a show that ran for half an hour. The episode, after all, was not about Vilela; instead, it addressed a much more relevant issue (the clashes between agribusiness and environmental conservationists). The defendants mentioned the prestigious awards won by the show (famous for the quality of its screenplay) – implying that the Brazilian public sphere would be considerably poorer without it. They also stressed that many sources were consulted (not just the newspaper expressly mentioned in the final cut) and that it was true that the plaintiff had been accused of countless wrongdoings. Duvivier and HBO quoted other newspaper articles about Vilela, some as recent as 2021. In short, they stated that the plaintiff’s absolution in specific criminal cases do not overshadow the other cases and charges brought against him.

However, the district court judge sided with the Vilela’s arguments. According to him, the offenses thrown at the plaintiff were “evident.” In order to justify the criminal charges mentioned during the episode the defendants should have proved that there were specific lawsuits against Vilela still going on. As there was no documentary evidence corroborating this point, the show purportedly went too far. The comedian and the TV broadcast appealed, but a final ruling by the appellate judges (and maybe by the Supreme Court) may take years to be completed.

Meanwhile, some aspects of the case deserve attention. The first of them is the awkward position of shows labeled as “infotainment” – a mix of information and entertainment (a product of our humoristic society, as Lipovetsky called it?). Of course humor is not always produced out of thin air, but in this case the due diligence of the press in the process of checking the facts about the entrepreneur played a much more significant role than in average humor cases (usually focused on how the comedians referred to the plaintiff). What is debatable is the rigorism of the judge when it comes to certifying Vilela’s innocence in specific criminal cases and disregarding the suspicions still hovering over him. The table brought by the defendants in the appeal with all the unfinished cases against the farmer is didactic and should have come earlier. Hopefully it will help convince the court of appeals that the plaintiff is in a delicate position and maybe support a reversal of the district court ruling. If not, at least a reduction of the amount of damages awarded to him is rightfully due.

Case reference: 5th District Court of Sao Paulo, State of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Case n. 1087330-43.2022.8.26.0100, sentenced by Judge Gustavo Coube Carvalho.