Media watchdogs condemn Ecuador libel ruling
Anger as court convicts four El Universo journalists of insulting president, sentencing them to three years in prison.
Last Modified: 22 Jul 2011 07:15
Correa lashed out at opponents in the media, accusing them of "defamatory libel" [EPA]

Media watchdogs around the world have denounced an Ecuadorian court decision to send four journalists to prison and impose a $40m fine for libel against President Rafael Correa.

Correa pledged not to keep "one cent" of the libel award against the El Universo, a daily newspaper, after a judge convicted senior newspaper managers Carlos, Cesar and Nicolas Perez and Emilio Palacio, former editorial page editor.

"I'm not interested in one cent, even worse from a person like [columnist] Emilio Palacio or the Perezes," Correa said after the court decision that also called for three-year prison terms.

Gonzalo Marroquin, president of the US-based Inter-American Press Association, called Wednesday's decision a "serious blow to the most essential principles of freedom of information".

"In addition to our resistance to this outrage against the independent press we are solidly behind the journalists and the entire staff of El Universo and hold the hope that higher courts will know how to uphold the right to freedom of the press and of expression of all citizens," he said.

To protest the verdict, El Universo on Friday published a nearly-empty front page with no articles.

'Major setback'

Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, called the conviction a "major setback for free speech in Ecuador".

"Punishing a journalist and directors of a newspaper for 'offending' the president is likely to have a very negative impact on the news media and public debate in Ecuador," he said.

Ricardo Uceda of the Peru-based Institute of Press and Society called the ruling "troubling" because it could mean that "the exercise of editorial opinion ... could become a criminal act".

France-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said it was "shocked" by the court ruling, saying it was contrary to the general trend in Latin America of decriminalising media offenses.

"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 Organisation of American States," the group said.

"This kind of judicial persecution suggests that the authorities are pursuing a strategy aimed at silencing the country's media, which are heavily criticised by President Correa in his radio and TV broadcasts."

Media 'reign of terror'

The newspaper's lawyers are appealing the ruling and Correa said that his lawyers would also appeal, seeking the full $80m initially sought.

The president said the money could be used for a government plan to fight global warming that involves seeking $3.6bn from international donors in exchange for not drilling for oil in the Amazon rainforest.

Correa's lawyers filed the lawsuit in March after Palacio wrote a column calling the president a "dictator" and saying that he could be tried for rights abuses for allegedly ordering supporters to open fire on a hospital during a September 2010 police mutiny.

The president alleged that during the revolt, sparked by police demands for pay increases, opposition forces briefly held him hostage and tried to kill him.

At least 10 people died in the uprising and related unrest.

The ruling was a "milestone" because it clearly means that "the reign of terror imposed by the press in this country is finally over", Correa said.

Like his regional ally Hugo Chavez, the leftist Venezuelan president, Correa has used referendums to increase his presidential power.

In May, Correa won a vote on 10 reforms, including controversial measures to regulate Ecuador's media and judiciary - moves criticised by the opposition as a power grab and a threat to freedom of expression.

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