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Journalist punished with three-year prison term for defamation; others censored

Government efforts to control the media environment in Ecuador are playing out in brutal ways. An Ecuadorian journalist was sentenced to three years in prison and fined US$10,000 on 26 March for targeting a government official in an opinion editorial, report the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and other IFEX members. Meanwhile, ARTICLE 19 and Fundamedios have reported on freedom of expression restrictions in a draft bill on media regulation under consideration by Congress. Also, the editor of a state-run newspaper was fired for challenging the state's editorial meddling, reports the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS).

A criminal defamation suit was brought against journalist Emilio Palacio of the Guayaquil-based newspaper "El Universo" last October, by the chairman of the National Financial Corporation (CFN), Camilo Samán. CFN is a government agency that grants loans to small businesses. The opinion piece, "Camilo, the Bully," covered a protest in front of the newspaper's headquarters after the publication of an investigation regarding delays by the agency in granting loans.

Palacio has also been an outspoken critic of President Rafael Correa. The President supported the sentence by saying that "freedom of expression is not there to tell lies or insults, or to defame anyone," reports the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC). The sentence has been appealed.

According to WPFC, Catalina Botero, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Organisation of American States, said: "In all cases reviewed or decided by the Inter-American Court, the protection of the honour or reputation of a public official or candidate for office by criminal sanctions against the speaker - by means of libel, defamation or insult laws - has been considered disproportionate and unnecessary in a democratic society."

Botero also noted the use of criminal statues "may constitute a means of indirect censorship because of the chilling effect it brings to the discussion of matters of public interest."

ARTICLE 19 and Fundamedios have urged the Ecuadorian government to respect the free flow of information in a draft bill currently under review. The draft bill contains provisions enabling prior censorship and restrictions on content, as well as provisions that indirectly impose compulsory membership in a journalism association, says ARTICLE 19. The National Assembly is reviewing the draft bill as a result of opposition by national and international organisations. But it is still considering clauses that would require all media to adopt and register a code of ethics before a communications commission - an entity that would have the power to impose sanctions against those who did not comply with the code.

In February, Fundamedios held a two-day conference in Quito, Ecuador, to explore media ethics and self-regulatory systems. ARTICLE 19 and Fundamedios have urged the National Assembly to guarantee the independence of the body meant to oversee the media. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is also calling on the National Assembly to decriminalise press offences.

A few months ago, Ruben Montoya, the director of the state-run newspaper "El Telégrafo", and several journalists raised concerns about "the government's plan to edit a populist-style newspaper which, according to critics, would be a means for spreading propaganda about the government's political agenda," reports IPYS. In reprisal, Montoya was dismissed from "El Telégrafo" on 25 March. Another journalist at the newspaper, who mentioned Montoya's departure in an opinion editorial, thanking him for his work and commenting on restrictions at the newspaper, was also dismissed. On 6 April, 20 columnists and contributors to "El Telégrafo" said they would no longer write for the newspaper to protest censorship and violations of free expression and press freedom, say news reports.

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