RIO DE JANEIRO — The acerbic tweet came naturally to the Brazilian novelist and journalist J.P. Cuenca, who was several months into a quarantine doom-scrolling routine.
One June afternoon, he read an article about the millions of dollars President Jair Bolsonaro’s government had spent advertising on radio and television stations owned by its evangelical Christian allies, particularly the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a Protestant denomination that has helped propel Brazil’s political shift rightward.
“Brazilians will only be free when the last Bolsonaro is strangled with the entrails of the last pastor from the Universal Church,” Mr. Cuenca wrote on Twitter, riffing on an oft-cited 18th century quote about the fates that should befall kings and priests.
He put his phone down, made coffee and carried on with his day, oblivious that the missive would soon cost him his job with a German news outlet, prompt death threats and spark a cascade of litigation. At least 130 Universal Church pastors, claiming “moral injury,” have sued him in remote courthouses around the vast country.
Mr. Cuenca is among the latest targets of a type of legal crusade that pastors and politicians in Brazil are increasingly waging against journalists and critics in a bitterly polarized nation. Defendants or their lawyers must then show up in person for each suit, leading them in a mad rush around the country.
“Their strategy is to sue me in different parts of the country so I have to defend myself in all these corners of Brazil, a continent-size nation,” he said. “They want to instill fear in future critical voices and to drive me to ruin or madness. It’s Kafka in the tropics.”
Press freedom advocates say the sheer number of suits against Mr. Cuenca is unusual, but the type of campaign he faces no longer is.
Leticia Kleim, a legal expert at the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalists, said, “We’re seeing the justice system become a means to censure and impede the work of journalists.”
She said the number of lawsuits against journalists and news organizations seeking the removal of content or damages for critical coverage has increased notably during the presidency of Mr. Bolsonaro, who often berates and insults journalists.
“The stigmatizing rhetoric has incentivized this practice,” she said. “Politicians portray journalists as the enemy and their base of supporters act the same way.”
Mr. Cuenca said he didn’t deem his tweet particularly offensive given the state of political discourse in Brazil.
After all, the country is governed by a president who supports torture, once told a female lawmaker she was too ugly to rape, said he would rather his son die in an accident than be gay, and in 2018 was criminally charged with inciting hatred against Black people, women and Indigenous people.
Earlier this year, Mr. Bolsonaro lashed out at two reporters who asked about a corruption case against one of his sons. He told one he had a “terribly homosexual face” and said to another that he was tempted to smash his face in.
Mr. Cuenca saw his criticism as comparatively high-minded. He said he disdains the Universal Church, which has grown into a transnational behemoth since its founding in the 1970s, because he believes it fueled Mr. Bolsonaro’s rise to the presidency, enabling ecological destruction, reckless handling of the coronavirus pandemic and institutional chaos.
“I was totally bored, distracted, procrastinating and angry over politics,” Mr. Cuenca said. “What I wrote was satire.”
The first sign of trouble was the wave of attacks that poured in on his social media accounts. Then came a one-line email from his editor at the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, where he wrote a regular column. “Cuenca, did you really tweet that?” she asked.
He offered to write a column explaining the history of the quote — versions of which have been attributed to the French priest Jean Meslier and later to Diderot and Voltaire — and offering examples of modern-day intellectuals using variations on the line to comment on Brazilian problems.
But the editor called the tweet “abominable” and told Mr. Cuenca his column was being canceled. Deutsche Welle issued a statement about its decision, saying it repudiates “any type of hate speech or incitement to violence.”
Eduardo Bolsonaro, a federal lawmaker and one of the president’s sons, celebrated Deutsche Welle’s decision in a message on Twitter and said he intended to sue Mr. Cuenca.
In August, Mr. Cuenca was startled to learn the tweet had led to a referral for criminal prosecution. But Frederico de Carvalho Paiva, the prosecutor who handled the referral, declined to charge Mr. Cuenca, writing in a decision that the journalist had a constitutional right to criticize the president, even in “rude and offensive” terms.
“That’s freedom of expression, which can’t be throttled by ignorant people who are unable to grasp hyperbole,” the prosecutor wrote.
Mr. Cuenca searched his name in a database of legal cases and found the first of dozens of strikingly similar lawsuits by pastors from the Universal Church, seeking monetary damages for the distress they said the tweet had caused them. They were filed under a legal mechanism that requires the defendant or a legal representative to appear in person to mount a defense.
Some pastors have found receptive judges, including one who ordered that Mr. Cuenca delete his entire Twitter account as a form of reparations. But another judge found the action meritless and called it in a ruling “almost an abuse of the legal process.”
In a statement, the Universal Church said it had played no role in the torrent of litigation. “Brazil’s Constitution guarantees everyone — including evangelical pastors — the right to seek justice,” the church said. “Whoever feels they have been offended or disrespected can seek reparations before the courts, which get to decide who is right.”
The statement said that the right to freedom of speech in Brazil is “not absolute,” and that satire is not a defense for religious prejudice. “It must be remembered that the assertion by the writer João Paulo Cuenca provoked repudiation among many Christians on social media.”
Taís Gasparian, a lawyer in São Paulo who has defended several people who faced similar bursts of almost-identical, simultaneous lawsuits, said plaintiffs like the Universal Church abuse a legal mechanism that was created in the 1990s to make the justice system accessible and affordable to ordinary people.
The type of action filed against Mr. Cuenca doesn’t require that a plaintiff hire a lawyer, but defendants who don’t show up in person or send a lawyer often lose by default. Universal Church pastors began a similar wave of suits against the journalist Elvira Lobato after she published an article in December 2007 documenting links between the church and companies based in tax havens.
The timing and the striking similarities among the lawsuits filed against Ms. Lobato and Mr. Cuenca make it clear they were copy-paste jobs, Ms. Gasparian said.
“It’s enormously cruel,” she said. “It’s an intimidation tactic in a country where the traditional media is facing big challenges.”
Paulo José Avelino da Silva, one of the pastors who sued Mr. Cuenca, said he took the action on his own initiative because the tweet offended him.
“As a Brazilian it made me feel like I was being excluded from my own country,” said the pastor, who lives in Maragogi, a beach town in the northeastern state of Alagoas. “If he had retracted what he wrote, I would not have sued.”
Mr. Cuenca said he hoped the ordeal would lead to changes in the justice system that prevent similar legal barrages. And perhaps the whole thing will become the subject of his next creative project.
“I’m thinking of making a film,” he said. He envisions traveling to remote towns to meet the pastors who sued him and see what happens if they just sit face to face and exchange views in good faith. “I’d like to talk to them and find what we have in common.”
Lis Moriconi contributed reporting.