Reporters Without Borders is shocked by yesterday’s court ruling in the western city of Guayaquil sentencing three directors of the El Universo daily – Carlos Pérez, César Pérez and Nicolas Pérez – and columnist Emilio Palacio to three years in prison and ordering them to pay a fine of 30 million dollars and 10 million dollars in damages in a libel suit by President Rafael Correa.
“Even if the columnist’s comments were excessive, we condemn the three-year jail sentences and the exorbitant fines and damages awards imposed on him and El Universo’s directors,” Reporters Without Borders said. “These sentences are all the more inopportune for coming at a time when the future communication law is being debated.
“Contrary to the general trend in Latin America of decriminalizing media offences, Ecuador’s legislation still provides for prison sentences for defamation. 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.
“This kind of judicial persecution suggests that the authorities are pursuing a strategy aimed at silencing the country’s media, which are heavily criticized by President Correa in his radio and TV broadcasts known as ‘cadenas’ and ‘enlaces.’ We call again for the decriminalization of media offences and we urge the courts to overturn this ruling. Upholding it will just encourage self-censorship.”
Filed on 21 March, President Correa’s complaint against El Universo and its former columnist requested three-year jail terms and 80 million dollars in damages. It was prompted by a column by Palacio on 6 February headlined “No to lies!” about the president’s response to a mutiny by police officers on 30 September 2010.
Without naming Correa, the column called him a “dictator” and said he could be tried for “crimes against humanity.” (Read the column in Spanish).
In a hearing that Judge Juan Paredes held behind closed doors on 19 July, although such hearings are normally open to the public and press, the newspaper’s directors proposed an out-of-court settlement under which they would publish the correction that the president deemed necessary (read their proposal in Spanish).
But President Correa rejected the offer, although he had previously said he would withdraw his lawsuit if the El Universo published a correction.
Reporters Without Borders wrote to President Correa on 1 April asking him to withdraw his lawsuit against El Universal and another one against Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita, the authors of “Big Brother,” a book about the president’s elder brother. No answer was ever received.
The El Universo case is similar to the kind of lawsuit specifically designed to intimidate and silence critics that is referred to in English-speaking countries as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation or SLAPP. It is carried out with the aim of forcing the target, a news media or NGO, to fold or retract because of legal costs or the threat of a ruinous damages award.
According to El Universo’s directors, more than 4,000 people would be put out of work if the newspaper were forced to close. Palacio resigned as one of its columnists on 7 July in the hope that it might induce the president to withdraw his suit against the newspaper.
Reporters Without Borders has already highlighted the positive aspects of the proposed communication law, which offers a chance to democratize the media landscape in Ecuador. But the organization would like the proposed law to include the decriminalization of media offences and to drop the concept of “good information.”