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WPFC urges president to decriminalise defamation laws; journalist Freddy Aponte released from prison

(WPFC/IFEX) - The following is a 23 March 2009 WPFC letter to President Rafael Correa Delgado:

His Excellency Rafael Correa Delgado
President of the Republic
Presidential Palace
Quito, Ecuador

Your Excellency,

The World Press Freedom Committee ( http://www.wpfc.org ) - an organization representing 45 press freedom groups from throughout the world - expresses its profound rejection for the juridical harassment two Ecuadorian journalists are the victims of, Milton Nelson Chacaguasay Flores, currently serving a 10-month prison sentence, and Freddy Aponte Aponte, who was released from prison on January 28 after serving three of the six months of his sentence.

Both journalists are suffering the outrageous punishments that are inherent to Ecuador's criminal defamation laws, which are applied in cases of alleged crimes of opinion to journalists unjustly prosecuted because of their professional activity. Because of these laws, any Ecuadorian journalist risks being treated like a mere criminal because of the profession they chose. The existence of these laws, a veritable Damocles sword dangling over the country's right to press freedom, flatly rejects the spirit and the letter of international treaties of which your country is a signatory.

Mr. Chacaguasay, editor-in-chief of La Verdad weekly magazine, is serving a ten-month prison sentence in the Provisional Detention Center in Quito as part of a sentence for criminal defamation pressed by local judge Silvio Castillo. The charges stem from an advertisement, published by La Verdad and paid for by a third party, in which Judge Castillo is accused of fraud.

Mr. Aponte, reporter of Radio Luz y Vida, was sentenced to six months in prison, of which he served three before an early release, because of "verbal aggression" charges pressed by former Loja Mayor José Bolívar Castillo, who was insulted by an interview conducted by the defendant in which he claims he was allegedly accused of being a thief. Even though there is no evidence that such a word was uttered in the interview and Mr. Aponte's case was first thrown out by a local court, he too was eventually treated like a mere criminal and put in jail by an appeals court.

In both cases, the defendants insist they are victims of revenge by two public officials who felt too uncomfortable with the journalists' work.

Whatever the reasons, the fact that Ecuadorian journalists gamble with their freedom every time they fulfill their duty to inform the public is in direct contradiction with the basic press freedom postulates enunciated by Article 18 of the Ecuadorian Constitution, as follows: "All persons, both individually and collectively, shall have the right to seek, receive, exchange, produce and disseminate information that is truthful, verified, timely, contextualized, plural and without previous censorship".

Also, Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights partly reads as follows: "Everyone has the right to freedom of expression and opinion; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference".

Both the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights support the concept that public officials should expect more, and not less, scrutiny and criticism from the rest of society. This acceptance of being a willing target of the media's slings and arrows also implies public officials should restrain themselves from invoking these laws in order to silence criticism directed at them.

Likewise, both inter-American entities maintain that defamation laws belong in civil, and not criminal, codes because the penalties imposed by the latter on alleged crimes of opinion are exaggerated and constitute an undue obstacle to the free flow of ideas and to the concept of press freedom.

The imprisonments of Messrs. Chacaguasay and Aponte leave no doubt in the minds of the rest of Ecuador's journalists that such a Damocles sword is not only a threat by a potent weapon against press freedom in your country. Without a free and independent press, public officials and corporate executives cannot be kept accountable to the rest of society. Without this essential ingredient, transparency and good governance become impossible to achieve.

Therefore, your Excellency, our Committee urges you to take the necessary legislative measures to begin a process of decriminalization of defamation laws, calumny and libel that will allow journalism in your country to fulfill its duties free of any obstacles.

Respectfully,
E. Markham Bench
Executive Director
World Press Freedom Committee

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