REGIONS:

Correa's defamation win exposes country's "disturbing" free expression situation

Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita with their controversial book,
Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita with their controversial book, "El Gran Hermano"
Two Ecuadoran journalists have been ordered to pay President Rafael Correa US$2 million in moral damages - the latest in a string of incidents that point to a "disturbing" and "deteriorating" free expression situation in Ecuador under President Rafael Correa, says IFEX-ALC, an alliance of 16 IFEX members in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita wrote the book "El Gran Hermano" (Big Brother), which alleged that US$600 million in government contracts were awarded to businesses linked to President Correa's older brother.

In the 7 February ruling, the judge said the accusations against the president had caused him moral damage akin to "spiritual harm," a principle that doesn't exist in Ecuadorean law, reports IFEX-ALC.

According to news reports, Judge Mercedes Portilla decided that the Ecuadoran President suffered a "great humiliation, grave social and moral affliction, and was vilified in front of Ecuadorans and readers at large."

Along with the $1 million in damages each, the journalists were ordered to pay US$100,000 for the president's legal fees, says the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Although Correa cancelled the contracts and said he was unaware of the arrangements, he then filed a US$10 million defamation lawsuit against the journalists and devoted three presidential broadcasts (cadenas) to discrediting the book and its authors, says CPJ. CPJ accused Correa of using defamation laws to silence critical journalists.

IFEX-ALC called the sentences "disproportionate" and "unjustified."

Calderón said that they planned to appeal the decision to the Provincial Court. He called the sentence "a form of punishment for reporting" and the fine "absurd and irrational," according to the Knight Center. Even the president's brother, Fabricio Correa, said that the sentence was "abusive," say news reports.

The ruling does not look good for the daily "El Universo", which is waiting for Ecuador's highest court to hear an appeal - scheduled for today - against a verdict that condemned four of the paper's staff to three years in jail each and a total of $US40 million in damages on charges of defaming Correa.

"The verdict, if upheld by the high court, could bankrupt the newspaper, put its managers in jail, and send a chill quashing dissent for years to come," warned CPJ.

Correa has a long record of responding aggressively to critical news coverage. A special report published by CPJ in September shows that in less than five years, Correa has turned Ecuador into one of the hemisphere's most restrictive nations for the press.

According to CPJ, his administration has "led the country into an era of widespread repression by filing defamation lawsuits, pre-empting private news broadcasts, enacting restrictive legal measures, and smearing critics."

Ecuador was also behind the recommendations adopted by the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States last month that could effectively weaken the organisation's free expression rapporteur, which has been critical of Correa's policies.

IFEX-ALC member in Ecuador, the Andean Foundation for Media Observation & Study (Fundamedios), has been vocal about Correa's actions. "It has become difficult for the press to work free of government interference. Official harassment of critical reporters has increased substantially," said César Ricaurte, Fundamedios executive director. Fundamedios documented more than 150 free expression violations last year alone.

IFEX-ALC is urging regional and international bodies to act as mediator in the "government-press conflict." "We believe that the situation with respect to the fundamental right to free expression in Ecuador has deteriorated to the point where the international community must not remain indifferent," said IFEX-ALC.

Latest Tweet:

We must urge gov’ts to protect #journalists and decrease #impunity, says IFEX’s @AnnieGame: http://t.co/rO65mtFlnu #EndImpunity