Brazil’s decision to expel a New York Times correspondent for an article commenting on the president’s alleged drinking habit will tarnish the country’s long tradition of respect for free expression, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Brazilian Ministry of Justice Ministry said yesterday that the article by Larry Rohter, the New York Times’ Rio de Janeiro bureau chief, was offensive to the honor of the president, and that the government considered the journalist’s continued presence in Brazil to be “inconvenient.”

“If the Brazilian authorities go through with their threat to expel Rohter, it will do irreparable damage to freedom of expression in the country and send a terrible message to other governments in the region that respect Brazil’s tradition of tolerance,” said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division. “We urge the Brazilian government to reverse its decision to expel Larry Rohter.”

Rohter’s article, entitled “Brazilian Leader’s Tippling Becomes National Concern” was published in the New York Times on May 9. In the article, Rohter referred to increasing private comment in Brazil about the president’s alcohol consumption, but he noted that “few are willing to express their misgivings in public or on the record.” The issue had recently been broached in the national press, but President Lula’s office commented to Rohter by e-mail that the reports were “a mixture of prejudice, misinformation and bad faith.”

After the article was published, Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva is reported to have said, “A President doesn’t reply to an idiocy like this. It doesn’t merit a reply, it merits action. I think that he should be more worried than I am.”

Top government officials in Latin America are accustomed to laws that protect their reputation from criticism they consider unfair or insulting, and Brazil is no exception. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has found that such laws—known as “desacato” laws—violate the free expression guarantees of the American Convention on Human Rights. It has called on states to repeal them.

Consistent with international legal norms in the American Convention and other treaties, public officials should not take legal or other reprisals against their critics when faced with intense public scrutiny. In expelling an accredited foreign journalist for an article the president considers insulting, Brazil would violate these norms for freedom of expression.

“President Lula has other means available to rebut this article or any other criticism with which he disagrees,” said Vivanco. “Instead of lashing out like this, he could have opted to defend himself publicly in Brazil’s vibrant free press.”