Ecuador: El Universo journalist and directors sentenced to three years in prison and US$40m fine for libeling President

Posted by & filed under Campaigns.

English PEN 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. English PEN calls on the President to withdraw the case and to ensure that defamation and other press offences are decriminalised in line with Ecuador’s international human rights obligations.

In March 2011, President Rafael Correa brought criminal libel charges against Emilio Palacio, 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’ (‘No a las mentiras‘).

In the article, Palacio refers to President Correa as “the dictator” and 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. 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. 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, one of the biggest newspapers in Ecuador, to close.

Background

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 judgment against El Universo comes at a time when a proposed new communications law promoted by President Correa is being debated in the country.

Useful links

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

TAKE ACTION

Please send appeals: (NB. A sample letter follows)

- Protesting 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;
- Calling on President Correa to withdraw the case;
- Urging the President and government to decriminalise defamation and all other press offences in line with article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights and the jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Appeals to:

Presidente Rafael Correa
Palacio de Carondelet, García Moreno No. 10-43, entre Chile y Espejo, Quito, Ecuador
Fax: 593 2 258 0714
Email: presidencia@presidencia.gob.ec / Rafael.correa@presidencia.gob.ec
Messages may also be sent through the Presidency’s official website
Salutation: Dear Mr President/ Sr. Presidente

Justice and Human Rights Minister
Johana Pesántez Benítez
Ministra de Justicia y Derechos Humanos
Av. Amazonas No. 34-451 y Atahualpa, Quito, Ecuador
Fax: 593 2 292 3804/ 593 2 246 4914
Email: info@minjusticia-ddhh.gov.ec    
Salutation: Dear Minister/Sr. Ministro

Please also send copies of your appeal to the diplomatic representative for Ecuador in the UK:

Her Excellency Mrs. Ana Albán Mora
Embassy of Ecuador
Flat 3B, 3 Hans Crescent
London
SW1X 0LS
Telephone: 020 7584 1367
Fax: 020 7451 0049
Email: eecugranbretania@mmrree.gov.ec

Please do let us know if you send an appeal, and certainly if you receive a response from the authorities, by emailing writersinprison@englishpen.org

SAMPLE LETTER

Please do write a more personal letter if you have time – the following is just an example:

[DATE]

Dear Mr President,

I am writing to you as a member of English PEN, the founding centre of the international association of writers, to protest the three-year prison sentence and US $40 million fine imposed on four staff members of El Universo, Emilio Palacio, Carlos Eduardo Pérez Barriga, César Enrique Pérez Barriga and Carlos Nicolás Pérez Enrique, on 20 July 2011.

According to PEN’s information, in March 2011 criminal libel charges were brought against Emilio Palacio, 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’ (‘No a las mentiras’).

The trial against them began on 19 July during which the co-directors of El Universo offered to print a correction, but this offer was rejected. 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 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. However, the judgment, if it stands, could force El Universo, one of the biggest newspapers in Ecuador, to close. It also comes at a time when a proposed new communications law is being debated in the country; there are widespread concerns about the negative impact this law may have on freedom of speech and access to information.

I am therefore writing to respectfully call upon Your Excellency to withdraw the case against Emilio Palacio, Carlos Eduardo Pérez Barriga, César Enrique Pérez Barriga and Carlos Nicolás Pérez Enrique. I would also like to take this opportunity to strongly urge the Ecuadorian government to ensure that defamation and other press offences are decriminalised in line with Ecuador’s international human rights obligations, specifically Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights and the jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

I would welcome your comments on my appeal.

Yours sincerely,

[NAME, ADDRESS]

Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/writersinprison/wipcnews/ecuadoreluniversojournalistanddirectorssentencedtothreeyearsinprisonandus40mfineforlibelingpresident/

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