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Fundamedios condemns million-dollar fines against journalists Calderón and Zurita

(Fundamedios/IFEX) - On Tuesday 7 February 2012, journalists Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita were sentenced to pay damages for US$2 million dollars (US$1 million each), plus US$100 thousand in fees to the President of the Republic's attorneys, for the alleged moral damage caused to President Rafael Correa by the publication of the investigative book “El Gran Hermano”. The Fifth Civil Judge of Pichincha, Mercedes Portilla, issued this first instance ruling.

TC Televisión, a TV station that was seized by the government, reported the news about the sentence on the night of 6 February.The convicted journalists, however, were not notified until 7 February at 11:30 am. A partial version of the sentence was available in the Judiciary's web page from 8:30 am on 7 February.

The sentence establishes that “In accordance to the principles of sound judgment and an overall assessment of the evidence presented by the litigants; in light of the above and as disposed by articles 2232, item 3; 2233; and 2234 of the Civil Code; 18, 40 of the Judicial Code; 169, 76.1.4 of the Constitution of the Republic... having dismissed the defendants' exceptions and established the lack of a counterclaim, we admit the suit filed by Mr Rafael Vicente Correa Delgado against Messrs Juan Carlos Calderón Vivanco and Christian Zurita Ron, and impose as compensation or indemnity, as way of reparation for the moral damage caused to the plaintiff, the payment of US$1 million by each of the defendants to the plaintiff, with costs for the fees for the plaintiff's attorneys established at US$100,000”.

However, neither the President of the Republic, as the accuser, nor his attorneys, presented any evidence of the alleged moral damage caused by the journalists, except for his own testimony made as a decisory oath.

Ramiro Aguilar, the journalists' counsel, stated that the sentence clearly shows that the judge wanted to ingratiate herself to the president. However, due to the forcefulness of the evidence presented by the accused, the judge was not able to declare that what the book says is false and she even recognized there is no document that shows that the president suffered any anguish or physical or psychological damage. Despite these two important elements, she concluded that the president, for the mere fact of being the president, and based on his decisory oath, the only evidence presented by the accuser, had been dishonored.

“Faced by the impossibility of destroying our evidence, the judge concluded that the president's sensibility was affected and this was proven by his oath. This means that this sensibility costs US$2 million," said Aguilar.

President Rafael Correa filed the lawsuit against journalists Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita on 28 February 2011 and requested compensation amounting to US$10 million. He considered that the book, which revealed the contracts his brother had with the State, contained "images of himself and his brother published without authorization; as well as false information that undermines, damages, dishonors my dignity and my good name...”

At the time, Aguilar denounced irregularities in the process after Judge Portilla accepted the president's “decisory oath” (self-confession) as evidence in his favor, something that is not legally allowed. Aguilar commented that the judge's decision was inadmissible because under Ecuadorian laws, a decisory oath has to be requested by the other party, it cannot be a one-way decision. He explained that in a civil trial this evidence is decisive. “What is sworn is sentenced. Therefore, it is absurd that the accuser should go to the tribunal, where his oath would be received, and that the sentence should be based on this,” the lawyer stated explicitly.
The sentence was issued before the president's attorneys presented all the evidence requested by the journalists.

Fundamedios condemns this very serious attack on freedom of expression and freedom of the press, which contributes to an atmosphere of deterioration of democratic liberties and fundamental rights currently in motion in Ecuador. We alert the international community to this attempt to silence Ecuadorian journalists. This sentence is no more than a warning of what can happen to those who dare to investigate and denounce cases of corruption during the exercise of power.
Case history

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