Roberto Civita was born on 9 August 1936 in Milan, Italy to Sylvana and Victor Civita, who worked in publishing. He had a younger brother Richard. His family moved to New York City in 1938 after passage of the Race Laws in Italy. In 1949, the family moved to São Paulo, Brazil, where his Father, Victor Civita, had founded the Editora Abril, first publishing comic books under license from the Walt Disney Company. (Donald Duck was the first title, released in 1950).
Like other publishers, Civita struggled to maintain press freedom under the long years of the repressive military government that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. Some compromises were forced, as the government censored press it did not like.
Mino Carta, co-founder and former managing Editor of Veja (between 1968 and 1976), said that the military government's censorship imposed on the magazine was "very harsh." It started in 1969 and did not end until 1976, when he resigned (or was fired, according to other sources). According to Carta, for being deemed an "enemy of the government", the military asked Roberto Civita to fire him. In exchange, the state bank Caixa Econômica Federal granted the company a loan of US$ 50 million.
Decades later, Civita and Carta appeared to defend their actions related to Veja in the 1970s. In 2007 Civita said that Veja had no need to "please everyone", even if criticized for purportedly editorializing in its articles about politics. He also said that he had not made decisions to satisfy advertisers or the government. In 2007 he said, "We're doing the magazines for readers, not to please advertisers, nor government, nor friends."
In addition to serving as a member of the Board of Governance of the Instituto Millenium, Civita was on the Board of Overseers of the International Center for Economic Growth (founded in 1985 with headquarters in Panama).
Searching for capitalization, in May 2006 Civita sold 30% of the Editora Abril to the South Africa's media conglomerate Naspers. This group was noted for its historical ties with the apartheid regime. In response to criticism, Civita said he chose this alternative rather than to capitalize the publishing arm from Grupo Abril. He did not want to submit his long-term vision to satisfy quarterly results for shareholders.
During that 2007 interview, Civita also said he did not oppose his reporters using material discovered in wiretaps, even if they were not legally authorized. He said his newsroom's legal department advised on what could be published from such sources. He was willing to have internal debate about the use of such recordings, but never really did it.
Following this revelation, a May 2012 article in Mino Carta's CartaCapital compared Civita to the controversial British publisher, Rupert Murdoch, because of his effective control of so much of the Brazilian media and the use of methods that were less than ethical. This was published during the proceedings of the CPMI do Cachoeira, a widely reported parliamentary investigation of the Goiano Capo Carlinhos Cachoeira. It found that Cachoeira had unorthodox connections with politicians who were (as the ex-senator Demóstenes Torres) and are (as the Rio's councilman Stepan Nercessian) opposed to the Workers Party.