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President calls for imprisonment of "La Hora" director over critical editorial; charges against other media threatened

(IAPA/IFEX) - The following is an 11 May 2007 IAPA press release:

IAPA protests contempt charge by Ecuador president against local newspaper

MIAMI, Florida (May 11, 2007) - The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) today assailed a decision by Ecuador's President Rafael Correa to invoke an insult law in suing the editor of a local newspaper over an editorial criticizing his administration.

President Correa on May 10 filed a suit in the Pichincha District Attorney's Office in which he called for Francisco Vivanco Riofrío, chairman of the editorial board of the daily newspaper La Hora, to be sent to prison, citing Article 230 of the Penal Code which makes insulting the president of Ecuador a criminal offense punishable by six months' to two years' imprisonment and a fine equivalent to $16 to $77.

Gonzalo Marroquín, chairman of the IAPA's Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, declared that it was "a clumsy step on the part of the Ecuadorean president to file a criminal charge against a news outlet, accusing it of contempt, an archaic concept in a modern democracy and outmoded in Latin America and which should be eliminated from penal codes, as the IAPA has been insisting."

Marroquín recalled that at a meeting the IAPA held in El Salvador earlier this week, the organization had called for repeal of insult laws, arguing that "preferential treatment of public officials is contrary to the equal treatment of all citizens and goes against the principle of public scrutiny of government actions in a democracy."

The IAPA, as other organizations dedicated to freedom of the press in the world, has been advocating repeal of all insult laws. The concept of making contempt a criminal offense has now been removed from the penal codes of Argentina, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Paraguay and Peru. In Chile it has been partially repealed. The only country to have strengthened its insult law is Venezuela, which did so in a reform of its Penal Code in February 2005, giving the president and other senior officials in that country privileged and preferential treatment over and above that of other citizens.

Correa's lawsuit was a reaction to a March 9 editorial in La Hora titled "Vandalismo oficial" (Official Vandalism). The editorial criticized the government's policy on acts of violence occurring at that time and commented that "this policy, which certainly emanates from the Presidential Office and seeks to govern with disturbances, rocks and sticks, is shameful for a head of state who prides himself on being a civilized man respectful of the opinions of others."

When filing the suit on behalf of President Correa, presidential legal counsel Alexis Mera threatened other news media, warning that the Presidential Office would take legal action against anyone publishing "unsubstantiated and libellous" reports. "We are prepared to take such action against any news outlet," he declared.

Marroquín, editor of the Guatemala City, Guatemala, newspaper Prensa Libre, called the official's words "even more alarming than the lawsuit itself" as "they contain a threat to all news media, seeking to promote self-censorship, which would have serious consequences for democracy in Ecuador."

He said that the IAPA respects the right of every person to have recourse to justice. But it was precisely those in government who should encourage criticism and public scrutiny, instead of resorting to retrograde laws.

Ecuador's Penal Code, in its Chapter 1 - On Rebellion and Attacks Upon Officials - states, "Article 230: The person who through threats, feigned threats or insults offends the President of the Republic or the one who exercises Executive Power shall be punished by six months' to two years' imprisonment and a fine of 16 to 77 United States dollars; Article 231: The person who through threats, insults, feigned threats or violence offends any of the public officials listed in Article 225, when the latter are carrying out their duties or by reason of such function, shall be punished by imprisonment of 15 days to three months and a fine of 8 to 47 United States dollars. Those who commit offenses detailed in the previous clause against an official not in a position of authority shall be punished by imprisonment of eight days to one month."

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