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IFEX-ALC concerned over recent developments that undermine and jeopardise fundamental freedoms

(IFEX-ALC) - 17 February 2012 - We, the members of the IFEX-ALC - an alliance of 16 member organisations of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) in Latin America and the Caribbean - express our concern regarding a series of very disturbing events that have taken place in Ecuador that undermine and jeopardise fundamental freedoms.

The first incident involves the onerous, disproportionate and unjustified sentence handed down against journalists Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita, writers of the book "El Gran Hermano" (Big Brother), which highlights lucrative government contracts obtained by President Rafael Correa's brother. The amount of the compensation awarded by Pichincha Fifth Civil Judge Mercedes Portilla is entirely disproportionate to the alleged damages caused by the exercise of free and responsible journalism and is totally unjustified since the president and his lawyers failed to present proof of the "moral damages" that were purportedly inflicted, resorting instead to a principle that does not exist in Ecuadorian legislation concerning "spiritual" impact.

The second disturbing matter concerns the entry into effect of amendments to the Law on Elections and Political Organisations, also known as the "Code of Democracy", which establish serious restrictions on the right of Ecuadorian citizens to inform and be informed without prior censorship by stipulating that media outlets cannot convey reports, articles or other messages that could be interpreted as a direct or indirect promotion, in favour of or against, any particular candidate for public office. In addition, private individuals are prevented from entering into advertising contracts that refer to any matter regarding the electoral process, thus limiting the right of citizens to, for example, promote responsible voting, encourage the youth vote, etc. Finally, restrictions were established regarding media coverage on the actual day of an election.

The third case, which possibly represents the most emblematic action against free expression and the work of the press in Ecuador, involves the lawsuit against the daily El Universo. Three directors of the daily, Carlos, Nicolás and César Pérez, along with former feature writer Emilio Palacio have been sentenced by the country's highest court to three years in prison and a compensatory payment of US$40 million. The sentence against the El Universo directors and Palacio was upheld despite that fact that new magistrates assumed their positions in the National Court of Justice just days before the case was heard, and the selection of judges was not carried out publicly, as required by law.

These cases are only the most recent and most representative in a long list of actions against journalists and media outlets. We believe that the situation with respect to the fundamental right to free expression in Ecuador has deteriorated to the point where the international community must not remain indifferent. As such, we call on:

1. The Government of Ecuador to refrain from using the justice system to persecute journalists.
2. The Government of Ecuador to stop disseminating a discourse that stigmatises journalists and privately-owned media outlets, and refrain from using state communication mechanisms to discredit them.
3. The international community to act as a mediator in order to start a broad dialogue between all the sectors involved in the current government-press conflict, with the objective of swiftly arriving at agreements that will protect in the best way possible the fundamental rights of the citizens of Ecuador and the principles that should govern a democracy.
4. The Government of Ecuador to guarantee that journalists are able to freely work during the electoral period, and ensure that respect is shown for the adoption of legitimate editorial positions by privately-owned media outlets.

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