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Ecuador

Ecuador: An end to Freedom of Expression? – El Universo

In Ecuador, the right to free expression is turning into a political problem, primarily because President Rafael Correa believes that independent media are political tools of the opposition, and therefore any type of criticism is perceived as a political attack.

One of the most emblematic cases is the slander charges filed by Correa as an individual citizen against Diario El Universo, its three directors and the editorial page editor for an article entitled, “No to lies.” In the lawsuit, Correa asks for three years of prison and US$80 million, an unprecedented sum for these type of cases.

In the column in question, Emilio Palacio (who resigned from his position in July) refers to Correa as a “dictator” and warns that a future president of Ecuador could bring him to justice for a September 30, 2010, incident in which he ordered gunfire against a hospital where the president was being held during a police protest. (http://www.eluniverso.com/2011/02/06/1/1363/mentiras.html)

(http://rafaelcorreacontraeluniverso.eluniverso.com/wp-content/media/2011/05/A-summary-of-the-criminal-charges-and-request-for-damages.pdf)

By Ecuadorean standards, the lower court ruled very quickly—in less than four months— sentencing four people to three years of prison each and imposing a fine of $US40 million, for damages to the honor of Rafael Correa. (https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=explorer&chrome=true&srcid=0B797yijCfDugN2UyYWMxYzEtMDNkOS00NDc3LWIyOTEtN2YwOGYzNjdlY2U5&hl=en_US)

The three year jail sentence for slander is only allowed in Ecuador for the crime of defamation against authority, but neither the lawsuit nor the sentence mention such defamation against public officials (desacato), which is to show disrespect for an authority, a crime which is being eliminated from legal status in many countries as it is considered to violate human rights (Principle 11 of the Declaration of Principles of the International Court of Human Rights http://www.iachr.org/declaration.htm).

The judge was assigned to the case only a few hours before the hearing, which took place in Guayaquil July 19. He ruled a mere 25 hours later, even though he had to read more than 5,000 pages and to write 156 pages in the findings.

Although according to Ecuadoran law, a legal entity cannot be found guilty nor sentenced to jail, the judge fined the company El Universo C.A. US$10 million.  The publishers of El Universo, Carlos, César and Nicolás Pérez, will go to prison for an opinion written by a third party. Moreover, it should be stressed that whether or not one is in agreement with what Emilio Palacio wrote, it is necessary to defend his right to write it.

(condemnation of CPJ of the situation of El Universo http://www.cpj.org/americas/ecuador/)
(http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/ecuadors-autocrat-cracks-down-on-media-freedom/2011/07/27/gIQA5BRtfI_story.html)
(http://www.wan-ifra.org/articles/2011/06/13/protest-campaign-ecuador-9-june-2011)

Both parties have appealed the sentence. The process is now  underway in another court made up of three judges, but the new Judiciary Council (three people named by Correa, the National Assembly and the state-run Transparency Coordination, and informally called “judiciary triumvirate”) decided to change its composition. One of the changes includes the appointment of a 31-year-old lawyer, allegedly a close friend of Correa’s lawyer (some pictures of both during a party appeared in the web), who could not prove that he had seven years of experience as a judge (in fact he has worked for state companies either in telecommunications and oil sectors). The judge in question resigned and the Council appointed another one for the hearing to be held on August 30th. (http://yfrog.com/h2od9hp)

The case of Diario El Universo is not the only one, since President Correa brought another lawsuit on February 28, 2011, against the journalists Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita, also on charges of slander, for authoring a book about contracts that the state granted to firms with links to his brother, Fabricio Correa. In this case, which is still pending, Correa asked for US$10 million.

(http://www.fundamedios.org/servicios/newsletter/manual/index.php?idMail=390)

These lawsuits are being filed in an atmosphere of confrontation for which the president has been preparing the terrain since 2007, when every Saturday national broadcast has a special slot dedicated to freedom of expression. In this space, the president has systematically disparaged the journalistic profession and those journalists he considers to be opposition. His branding of them as “corrupt journalists” is one of his milder phrases. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36hSUIWiOrI)

Journalists are subject to many insults, not only in the mandatory national broadcasts to which all stations are subject and in which journalists or their work are constantly questioned; they are also subject to harassment by certain government officials or through their parties; in addition, government media—which number about 19—are used to attack journalists from privately owned media.

The denial of access to information is already a common practice, as is the lack of transparency in government institutions. For example, between January and July of this year, Correa decreed an emergency in the area of health, allocating US$406 million, but nobody has been able to find out how the money was spent.

This environment of confrontation is also tinged by an extravagant campaign of official publicity, in which the placement of advertising is estimated at around US$50 million annually, money which serves as prize or punishment for the media, according to how in or out of favor they are with the government.

In the National Assembly (Congress), where the government has the majority of votes, a bill for a communications law is under consideration. The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has observed that it considers that some of the articles in the bill are in violation of international norms. In particular, the Rapporteur singles out the requirement that journalists and photographers must hold a university degree in social communication and the creation of a Regulatory Council with sweeping regulatory powers. (http://www.eluniverso.com/data/recursos/documentos/catalinaboterooea3.pdf)

(Situation of freedom of expression in Ecuador, page 82 http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/expression/docs/reports/annual/Infornme%202010%20P%20ENG.pdf) (Report of Fundamedios on the state of press freedom in Ecuador http://ia700405.us.archive.org/27/items/InformeLibertadDePrensa2010/InformeFundamedios2010.pdf) (2010 CPJ report http://www.cpj.org/2011/02/attacks-on-the-press-2010-ecuador.php)

It is true that in the midst of a political vacuum left by the demise of traditional politicians and by the paralyzation of citizens’ social movements (a dozen of demonstrators, including some indigenous leaders, have been charged with “terrorism”), independent media has been capable of raising its critical voice against the government and to publish investigations that reveal cases of corruption.

In the same fashion, these media inform about the large investments made in social and public works and other positive measures. At the present time, the government party controls the Assembly; the Attorney General is a close friend of the president, and an officialist triumvirate is in charge of appointing all the country’s judges.

If the government takes control of the serious newspaper with the largest circulation in Ecuador, this will not only provoke censorship in the rest of the media, but will also give the government control over the entire media spectrum in the country and impede any new leader or movement from emerging on the national stage.

Debate will be virtually outlawed.

Source: El Universo (Ecuador)

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One comment for “Ecuador: An end to Freedom of Expression? – El Universo”

  1. Imitating Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, dictator Rafael Correa is transforming Ecuador into his animal farm and Ecuadorians into his cattle.

    May God help Ecuadorians free themselves from the tyrant and punish the tyrant.

    Posted by Antonio Sosa | September 9, 2011, 6:58 am

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