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IFEX members urge President to withdraw US$80 million lawsuit against paper

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa is asking for US$80 million in damages from the newspaper "El Universo" and three years in prison for its executives for printing a "slanderous" article, report IFEX interim member Andean Foundation for Media Observation & Study (FUNDAMEDIOS) and IFEX members. The members are urging Correa to withdraw the lawsuit.

According to "El Universo", the complaint was filed on 22 March - under Correa's personal capacity and not as a ruler - but the paper and its staff have not been formally notified.

"When Rafael Correa entered political life, he voluntarily chose to subject himself to public scrutiny and criticism," said the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). "It's outrageous that as president he would put his own reputation ahead of the national interest of ensuring a robust public debate."

The complaint was prompted by the 6 February editorial "No to Lies" by Emilio Palacio that refers to Correa as "the dictator", and accuses him of giving orders to "fire at will" against a hospital during a police rebellion last September.

Correa is asking for three-year prison sentences for three of the newspaper's executives and Palacio.

In an open letter to Correa, Jean-François Julliard, the secretary general of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), calls such legal actions "excessive" while acknowledging the "gravity" of the journalists' accusations against the President and the "insulting nature" of the "El Universo" article.

"What do you hope to achieve by demanding such exorbitant amounts in damages, or even imprisonment? Do you think this will help to prevent insult and defamation?" Julliard asked. "We oppose the imposition of prison sentences for press offences with all our strength."

The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) described the president's attitude as "abusive, ridiculous, and out of line." Correa defended his actions in an interview aired on the news website Ecuadorinmediato, calling Palacios's column irresponsible and insisting that the paper's directors should be held responsible for publishing the piece as well as the columnist himself.

Human Rights Watch and CPJ called for Ecuador to repeal provisions on defamation, libel and insult from its penal code.

CPJ research shows that Ecuador's outdated criminal defamation provisions have been systematically used to punish critical journalists.

In February, Correa sued two journalists for US$10 million for writing "Big Brother", a book about alleged government contracts worth millions of dollars awarded to Fabricio Correa, the president's older brother.

According to the paper "El Mundo", the latest complaints bring to 18 the lawsuits against journalists and media owners in Ecuador since Correa came to power in 2007.

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