Reporters Without Borders

President urged to withdraw two legal actions demanding heavy damages, jail terms

President urged to withdraw two legal actions demanding heavy damages, jail terms

Published on Friday 1 April 2011.
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Mr. Rafael Correa Delgado
President of the Republic
Carondelet Palace
Quito, Ecuador

Dear President Correa,

You have just brought two legal actions in quick succession against journalists. Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom NGO, is very concerned about the consequences of these legal actions and about the damages requested, which strike us as excessive.

The first legal action is a civil suit filed in February against Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita, the authors of a book entitled “The elder brother.” These two journalists raise questions about contracts awarded to your elder brother, the businessman Fabricio Correa, and claim you knew about them. You are demanding 10 million dollars in damages.

The other case is a criminal one. Criminal libel charges were brought on 21 March against the three co-directors of the daily El UniversoCarlos, César and Nicolas Pérez – and the columnist Emilio Palacio, whose extraordinary virulence we are already seen.

In an opinion piece published on 6 February with “No to lies!” as its headline, Mr. Palacio accuses you of wanting to pardon the three policemen who were behind 30 September 2010 uprising. Without naming you, he refers to you as a “dictator” and talks of a “crime against humanity.” In this case you are demanding 80 million dollars in damages from El Universo and its directors and a three-year jail sentence for each of these four persons.

We do not deny the gravity of the allegations made against you, nor their insulting nature in the case of the El Universo article. But we think these legal actions pose a grave danger for freedom of expression.

You have said you are demanding justice in “a personal capacity,” not as president. Nonetheless, your detractors were addressing you in your capacity as president. In principle, you deserve respect because of the post you hold but, in practice, the person who governs a country is necessarily exposed to criticism, including criticism of the most radical kind. It goes with a democracy, in Ecuador and elsewhere.

Regardless of their veracity, or their tone in the case of the El Universo column, such allegations raise matters of public interest and call for a response from you on the substance of the claims made. Nothing stops you from responding publicly by addressing the media that you are often quick to indiscriminately brand as enemies, when you are sometimes permitting an abusive exploitation of the right to use the media to transmit official messages (“cadenas”).

And anyway, 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? We oppose the imposition of prison sentences for press offences with all our strength. It runs counter to Inter-American jurisprudence and the trend in Latin America towards the decriminalization of press offences. It is an extremely grave violation of a fundamental democratic principle. And it is also a political mistake. If you win, you risk not only driving all journalists to censor themselves but also increasing the polarization of an already polarized press. The remedy is worse that the disease. The crime of lèse-majesté belongs to the past.

In our view, you should make a strong gesture by withdrawing your legal actions. And a pledge to decriminalize press offences would help achieve an eventual consensus on the communication law, of which we have previously stressed the aspects favouring media pluralism and diversity.

We thank you in advance for the attention you give to our appeal.

Sincerely,

Jean-François Julliard
Reporters Without Borders secretary-general

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