Ecuador: imprisoned journalists, fined newspaper
22 Jul 2011
In a July 20 ruling, an Ecuadorian judge sentenced three directors and one of the journalists of El Universo, one of Ecuador’s largest daily newspapers, to three years imprisonment for defamation of President Rafael Correa. The judge also ordered the daily to pay damages of $40 million to the President.
The case was brought at the court in Santiago de Guayaquil for an article in which some facts of the September 2010 crisis and an attempted coup d’état, were questioned by the author. ARTICLE 19 is concerned about the application of criminal defamation provisions and a considerably high indemnification amount in this case, especially because the plaintiff is the President of the Republic.
In March 2011, Correa filed a lawsuit against the newspaper, its owners and the author of a column in El Universo, published on 6 February 2011, titled “No to lies”. In the column, the journalist Emilio Palacio expressed his views on the events that occurred in Ecuador on 30 September 2010, when a group of policemen revolted, and discussed allegations that the President, referred to as a “dictator”, was considering pardoning the rebellious policemen. This week, a new judge temporarily took over the case and issued a sentence within 24 hours. The judge considered the article an attempt against President Correa’s honour and condemned the defendants for slander.
“Defamation decisions such as in the El Universo case have a chilling effect on the work of journalists and media, who may engage in self-censorship out of fear of prosecution. This can have a strong negative impact on Ecuadorian democracy”, says Dr Agnes Callamard, ARTICLE 19 Executive Director, “We call on the Government of Ecuador to decriminalise defamation, drop charges against El Universo journalists and implement its commitments to freedom of expression.”
ARTICLE 19 recalls that criminal defamation provisions run counter to international standards on free speech. Such provisions are especially problematic because they are often abused by the powerful to limit criticism and to stifle public debate. We note that international bodies such as the UN and the Organization of American states have recognised the threat posed by criminal defamation laws and have recommended that they be abolished. For instance, the UN Human Rights Committee has repeatedly expressed concern about criminal defamation laws and has called on States to ensure that defamation is no longer punishable by imprisonment. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has also found a breach of the right to freedom of expression in two leading cases where criminal defamation was applied to statements on matters of public interest.
Moreover, international human rights bodies make it very clear that public officials are required to tolerate more, not less, criticism than private individuals, in part because of the public interest in open debate about public figures and institutions. Hence, criminal defamation laws should not be applied to shield public officials from criticism. Notably, the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, adopted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2000, clearly states that the protection of a person’s reputation should be guaranteed solely through civil sanctions in cases where the person offended is a public official, a public person or a private person who has voluntarily become involved in matters of public interest. This standard recognises the vital importance in a democracy of open criticism of government and public authorities, the limited and public nature of any reputation these bodies have, and the ample means available to public authorities to defend themselves from criticism.
ARTICLE 19 calls on the Government of Ecuador to abide by these standards. The Government should repeal criminal defamation provisions and replace them with appropriate private law remedies. Pending their abolition, the Ecuadorian judiciary should cease from applying criminal defamation provisions in practice and refrain from imposing disproportional civil sanctions in cases concerning the exercise of freedom of expression.
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