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Journalist sentenced to five years in prison in slander case

(Fundamedios/IFEX) - 15 August 2011- Fundamedios condemns the sentence handed down against radio journalist Freddy Aponte, considering it to be a clear indicator that the journalist is being persecuted given that this is his third conviction in a lawsuit for slander filed by the former mayor of Loja, José Bolívar Castillo. On 27 July 2011, a Loja court found Aponte guilty of "fraudulent bankruptcy" after he failed to pay approximately US$55,000 in damages to Castillo, owing to a lack of funds. On 9 August, he was sentenced to five years in prison.

In January, Fundamedios reported on Aponte's case, which has involved judicial harassment as he has been subjected to three separate proceedings, all of them initiated by Castillo. This latest conviction stems from one of those legal proceedings. The first legal action initiated against Aponte was for aggravated slander, after he was accused of calling Castillo a "thief" on his "Primer Plano" opinion programme broadcast by the Luz y Vida radio station. Aponte was sentenced to six months in prison in 2008 and was ordered to pay the previously mentioned compensation.

The lawsuits and convictions of Aponte derive from the actions Castillo initiated against him using legal criteria that criminalise the expression of opinions, which have also been used by other authorities to press charges against and convict journalists. Aponte's lawyer has made remarks about the existence of irregularities in the process, claiming Criminal Law statutes have been applied incorrectly. He also pointed to the existence of prejudice against his client, such that "the defence was not on equal terms."

Fundamedios has emphasised, on innumerable occasions, that the existence and application of the abovementioned legal criteria contravene international standards on freedom of expression.

Although it is true that every citizen's reputation must be protected by civil sanctions, Fundamedios is of the opinion that damages awarded must never be so high that the convicted person may find it impossible to pay them, and therefore faces bankruptcy or may end up in prison.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has stipulated in its Declaration of Principles that: "Public officials are subject to greater scrutiny by society. Laws that penalise offensive expressions directed at public officials, generally known as 'desacato (insult) laws', restrict freedom of expression and the right to information."

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