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President Correa's critics sent to prison for criminal defamation, fined millions

Ecuadorean President Correa punishes critics with US$40 million fine
Ecuadorean President Correa punishes critics with US$40 million fine

REUTERS/Enrique Castro-Mendivil

In a 20 July ruling, an Ecuadorean judge sentenced a journalist and three newspaper executives to prison for three years with a $40 million fine for publishing a column that questioned the appropriateness of an army raid to rescue President Rafael Correa from a demonstration of striking policemen. The criminal conviction of Correa's critics is a major blow to press freedom, violating Ecuador's international human rights obligations, say the Andean Foundation for Media Observation & Study (Fundamedios), the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) and other IFEX members.

Ecuador should abolish the defamation provisions in its criminal code, known as "desacato" law, say IFEX members, especially when other countries in Latin America are removing prison terms and harsh penalties for criminal defamation.

Criminal defamation provisions are often used by those in power to limit criticism and control public debate, says ARTICLE 19. In fact, public officials should tolerate more, not less, criticism than private individuals, due to public interest in open debate about public figures and institutions. As a result, criminal defamation laws should not be applied to shield public officials from criticism.



The four defendants were fined US$30 million in total and an additional US$10 million was meted out to "El Universo"- one of the country's largest dailies and main opposition newspaper. Journalist Emilio Palacio, who wrote the 6 February column for "El Universo", called the sentence "a barbarity."


In his column, "NO to lies", Palacio refers to Correa as "the dictator" who ordered troops to "fire - without prior notification - against a hospital full of civilians and innocent people" during a September 2010 police rebellion over government plans to cut police benefits. Palacio suggested that these actions could amount to crimes against humanity. During the crisis, Correa was roughed up by demonstrators and retreated inside the hospital until Ecuadoran soldiers rescued him. At least 10 people died in the unrest, say news reports. Palacio also criticised Correa for considering pardoning the police involved in the rebellion.



In March 2011, Correa brought libel charges against Palacio and the Guayaquil-based paper's executives, Carlos Pérez Barriga, César Pérez Barriga and Nicolás Pérez Barriga, demanding a three-year prison term for each defendant and $80 million in damages from the paper and its staff. Correa claimed the column "on purpose, immorally, and maliciously insults him, with the only intention of affecting his prestige, honour, and good name," reports Human Rights Watch. The daily's directors offered to print a correction if the President drafted it himself; Correa rejected the offer.



"We are alarmed that a democratically elected president should resort to such outdated laws to silence critical reporting," said the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).


"President Correa's chronic inability to deal with criticism, even misguided or inaccurate, reveals a stubborn rejection of some of the most basic tenets of democracy," said the World Press Freedom Committee of Freedom House. "His fondness of jousting with his critics and all-out offensives to put them out of business and out of the public arena denotes unwillingness to accept democratic rules of the game."



This is the second lawsuit Correa has filed against Ecuadorean journalists. Correa filed a US$10 million civil defamation lawsuit against investigative journalists Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita, authors of a book called "Gran Hermano" (Big Brother) on official corruption. The country's media are often criticised by Correa in his radio and TV broadcasts known as "cadenzas" and "enlaces", says Reporters Without Borders (RSF). He has referred to journalists as "irresponsible", "corrupt" and "assassins of ink", according to the International Press Institute (IPI).



Ecuadorean law contrasts progressive changes that have taken place in other Latin American countries, say IFEX members. In 2009, the Costa Rican Supreme Court eliminated prison terms for criminal defamation and the Argentine Congress repealed criminal defamation provisions in the penal code. The same year, Brazil's Supreme Federal Tribunal annulled the 1967 Press Law, which had imposed brutal penalties for libel and slander. "Jailing someone for a media offence is contrary to the jurisprudence established by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which Ecuador is required to follow as a member of the Organization of American States," reports RSF.


IAPA has urged the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to monitor the press freedom and free speech situation in Ecuador, to insist that those in power amend laws that make criticism and expression of opinions criminal offenses.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
Related stories on ifex.org


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