RAN 42/11 3 August 2011
The Writers in Prison Committee PEN of International (WiPC) protests the three-year prison sentences and US$40 million in fines imposed on El Universo columnist Emilio Palacio and the newspaper’s co-directors Carlos Eduardo Pérez Barriga, César Enrique Pérez Barriga, Carlos Nicolás Pérez Enrique on 20 July 2011 for allegedly libeling President Rafael Correa in an article published in February this year. The WiPC calls on the President to withdraw the case and to ensure that defamation and other press offences are decriminalized in line with Ecuador’s international human rights obligations.
In March 2011, President Rafael Correa brought criminal libel charges against Emilio Palacio (pictured, left), columnist for the Guayaquil-based daily El Universo, and the newspaper’s co-directors Carlos Eduardo Pérez Barriga, César Enrique Pérez Barriga and Carlos Nicolás Pérez Enrique over a 6 February 2011 article entitled ‘No to Lies’.
In the article, Palacio refers to President Correa as “the dictator”, accuses him of wanting to pardon three policemen who were behind an uprising on 30 September 2010 during which several people were killed. He also insinuates that the President may be guilty of crimes against humanity by allegedly ordering troops to open fire on a police hospital where he sought refuge after being attacked by protesters (to read the article in Spanish, click here). The President asked the court to sentence each of the defendants to the maximum of three years in prison and to fine them US$50 million under Article 493 of the Ecuadorian Criminal Code. He also sought US$30 million in damages from the newspaper’s parent company.
On 7 July, Palacio resigned from El Universo in the hope that the move would lead President Correa to withdraw the case. However, this proved unsuccessful and the trial began on 19 July, attended by the President in person. That day, the co-directors of El Universo offered to print a correction drafted by the President, an offer which he rejected despite having previously said he would drop the case if such a correction were published.
On 20 July, less than 24 hours after the trial started, the four journalists were sentenced to three years in prison each and fined a total of US$30 million. The paper’s parent company was also ordered to pay an additional US$10 million in damages. According to the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the defendants must also pay US$2 million to the President’s attorneys in legal fees. The IACHR Special Rapporteur also said that prior to the hearing the government had issued several statements disparaging El Universo, its board members and Palacio, and that groups of protesters supportive of the government reportedly insulted the defendants and a witness as they left the tribunal.
Palacio and the three El Universo directors intend to appeal the verdict. The President reportedly also plans to lodge an appeal in order to seek the full US$80 damages requested, which he claims he will donate to a government environment project. The judgement, if it stands, could force El Universo to close; it is one of the biggest newspapers in Ecuador.
Ecuador has made a habit of using its outdated criminal defamation laws to punish critical journalists. La Verdad editor Milton Chacaguasay Flores was jailed several times in 2008-09 for allegedly libeling a judge, and a radio journalist was sentenced to one year in prison in May 2011 for supposedly defaming a local mayor. President Correa also filed a civil defamation against investigative journalists Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita seeking US$10 million for “moral damages” allegedly caused by their book on official corruption, El Gran Hermano (Big Brother).
The judgement against El Universo comes at a time when a proposed new communications law promoted by President Correa is being debated in the country.
Reports on the sentence against El Universo by:
•The BBC (21 July 2011): English; Spanish
•Committee to Protect Journalists (21 July 2011): English; Spanish
•Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights : English; Spanish
•Amnesty International (22 July 2011): English
•Reporters Without Borders (21 July 2011): English; Spanish