Ecuador: Paying a high price for the “honour” of a populist President

In Ecuador, a crushed and silenced democracy

El Universo staff members carry a mock coffin to protest the court ruling that upheld the verdict against their colleagues. (AFP/Camilo Pareja)

El Universo staff members carry a mock coffin to protest the court ruling that upheld the verdict against their colleagues. (AFP/Camilo Pareja)

The sentence against Ecuadoran newspaper El Universo, its opinion editor, Emilio Palacio Urrutia, and its three top executives, Carlos Eduardo Pérez Barriga, César Enrique Pérez Barriga, and Carlos Nicolás Pérez Lapentti, for supposed offenses against Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa in Palacio’s article “NO to lies,” is a worn-out manifestation of the perverse concept of public freedoms that certain elected governments manipulate. They pervert their legitimacy with an authoritarian self-assuredness that permeates their exercise of power.

The violation of freedom of expression here is notorious, and its illegitimacy flies in the face of international standards on the subject. Any criminal conviction for supposed offenses against the honor of public officials is illegitimate, because it curtails the right to criticize, because it undermines society’s control on the powers that be, and because it erodes tolerance in the face of the other, which is inherent to democracy and its values. Likewise, any irrational or disproportionate civil judgment, that condemns a newspaper to close or be expropriated for the private profit of the president, is unacceptable nonsense. To ruin a journalist for saying what he thinks is an incalculable abuse, and to ruin editors and executives for permitting the journalist to express himself is to reissue the worst obscurantism.

This highlights the contradiction that is at the heart of this sentence, which falls within a more complex phenomenon: the use of the tools of democracy, rule of law, and the protection of human rights to bring down democracy. It is a true aberration that reveals a new wave of oppression by elected rulers, who have confused democracy with elections, which they have made a mere instrument for the seizing of power and to cloak the arbitrariness of an illegal judicial system.

Human rights are the historical tool of humankind to combat oppression–any kind of oppression, but above all that which originates with the State. It is nonsensical that this tool is being used by the State to knock down freedom of expression and the right to be informed–fundamental rights for all society–and to destroy a newspaper, imprison journalists and media executives, and enrich the president at their expense.

The ruling President Correa has obtained from the docile Ecuadoran judiciary has been molded to his whims, and it has a clear objective: to teach them a lesson. To teach them a lesson in Ecuador and in the other countries that follow his deplorable example. To make intolerance a tool to beat down anyone who dares to criticize and bother the majesty of the chief. In this case, the government is severely punishing those who dissent, demonizing those who criticize, and sending them to hell to silence them. It is a punishment that affects not only the convicted, but all of society. It is an antidemocratic lesson. The nefarious purpose of this ruling is to make journalists write with fear and to make media editors and owners–who are scared as well–censor their columnists and reporters lest they suffer the same fate as El Universoand its directors. They want to decree the hour of silence, when the guarantee of honor becomes fear. The hour in which the only expression that offers shelter from punishment is silence. An hour that belongs to an age of darkness. An hour of the unacceptable. A society steeped in fear and silence can never be democratic.

Source: CPJ

Ecuador’s Rafael Correa under fire for media laws

By Irene CaselliQuito, Ecuador

President Rafael Correa speaks during a news conference after a court session at the Ecuadorean Justice Supreme Court in Quito, 24 January 2012.
President Correa argues that Ecuador’s media try to assume a political role

Rafael Correa has been Ecuador’s president since 2007 but it is probably fair to say he has never had as much international attention as in recent weeks.

In January, several major US newspapers took a swipe at him in separate editorials.

“President Rafael Correa of Ecuador is leading a relentless campaign against free speech,” said The New York Times.

The Washington Post said the president ought to be known for “the most comprehensive and ruthless assault on free media under way in the Western Hemisphere”.

According to various international rights organisations, 2011 was a bad year for freedom of speech in Ecuador, and 2012 does not bode well.

Following a change to the current electoral law, which comes into effect on 4 February, journalists will face restrictions when reporting on the forthcoming campaign for the 2013 presidential election.

The new article prohibits media from “either directly or indirectly promoting any given candidate, proposal, options, electoral preferences or political thesis, through articles, specials or any other form of message”.

Several Ecuadorean journalists have said the new regulations amount to censorship.

“It is clear that this is an affront to basic rights,” said Ecuadorean media freedom organisation Fundamedios.

Popular leader

But President Correa is adamant that the new legislation is vital.

“Media cannot be political actors,” he said during one of his weekly TV and radio broadcasts.

“We have to put an end to the illegitimate, immoral political power that certain media have. All they do every day is a political campaign against the government.”

Mr Correa has not yet said whether he will run in the election, currently scheduled for January 2013.

With approval ratings close to 80%, according to a polling firm favoured by the government, he seemingly has the largest support base among potential candidates.

Newspaper stand in Quito
The battle between the president and some media outlets has ended up in court

Mr Correa, who is popular in Ecuador thanks to his social programmes that support, among others, the poor and the disabled, has often said media are his “greatest enemy” and a major obstacle in implementing reforms.

In Ecuador, private media have traditionally served the interests of their owners – powerful groups with strong economic interests.

Mr Correa says those elites do not want wealth to be fairly distributed across the country.

Under Mr Correa’s leadership, the government has brought in laws to limit media concentration.

In 2008 a number of media outlets, including two TV stations, were seized from bankers on the grounds of corruption.

The government went from controlling only one radio station to running a large network of media, which have the obligation of broadcasting the president’s weekly radio and TV shows.

Although the growth of public media is important, the current landscape is far from balanced, according to investigative journalist Juan Carlos Calderon.

“The president has decided to demonise private media, even if it is a legitimate activity, regulated by the constitution,” Mr Calderon says.

“The president has created this polarisation. We journalists are the meat in the sandwich.”

Legal spotlight

Mr Calderon is facing a libel trial following the 2010 publication of a book, Big Brother (El Gran Hermano), which detailed government contracts that benefited the president’s older brother, Fabricio.

President Correa, who denied knowledge of the contracts and had them cancelled when they came to light, filed a $10m (£6.4m) lawsuit against Mr Calderon and his co-author for attempting to discredit his good name.

Ecuadorean presidential guards rise the national flag during a special change of presidential guards ceremony marking President Rafael Correa's fifth year as president on 16 January
Rafael Correa’s five years in office have seen a raft of changes in the country

For his part, Fabricio Correa has said that all the contracts were the result of public tender.

In 2011, Mr Correa filed another libel suit against El Universo newspaper after former editor Emilio Palacio wrote a column in which he called the president a “dictator.”

The newspaper’s three directors and Mr Palacio were sentenced to three years in jail with fines totalling $40m.

Their delayed appeal is expected to be heard in February.

If the conviction is upheld, El Universo, one of the oldest newspapers in the country, might have to declare bankruptcy.

In another case, Jaime Mantilla, director of Hoy newspaper, was sentenced in December to three months in jail for failing to reveal the sources of a series of reports that Pedro Delgado, current head of the central bank, and Mr Correa’s cousin, said were offensive.

International criticism against President Correa has grown in relation to the growing tension between the executive and representatives of the country’s media.

In a 2011 report, the UN’s cultural body Unesco stressed the need to repeal libel laws and to modernise the rules regulating free expression in Ecuador.

The Organization of American States’ Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression has also voiced concern.

In response, President Correa has called for the remit and the financing of the rapporteur’s office to be reviewed.

He has said that the OAS needs a new human rights forum that does not automatically follow the lead of the United States.

“Having successfully run roughshod over the democratic institutions within his own country, Correa is now seeking to employ the same tactics outside his borders,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists, in a recent opinion piece in the Miami Herald.

While Mr Correa has repeatedly demonstrated that he can deal with opposition at home, this year seems likely to show if he is equally well able to deal with critics abroad.

Source: BBC News


Washington D.C., February 16, 2012 − The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Catalina Botero Marino, and the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue, express deep concern over the decision of the National Court of Justice of Ecuador affirming the criminal and civil judgment against three executives and a journalist from El Universo newspaper to three years in jail and to pay $40 million, for the publication of a column that offended President Rafael Correa.

According to the information received, on February 16 the Specialized Criminal Chamber of the National Court of Justice affirmed the decision against the newspaper and its board members Carlos Nicolás Pérez Lapentti, Carlos Pérez Barriga and César Pérez Barriga for the offense of criminal defamation of an authority. On December 27, 2011, the same Chamber had rendered final the judgment against the column’s author and editor of the opinion section, Emilio Palacio.

The case arose from an opinion column published by Palacio on February 6, 2011, entitled “No a las Mentiras” [No to Lies], in which he harshly challenged decisions allegedly made by President Correa during the events of September 30, 2010. The President denied Palacio’s assertions and considered that they damaged his reputation. Accordingly, the President filed the complaint on March 21, 2011. On July 20, 2011, the trial court handed down its conviction. That judgment was affirmed in its entirety by the Second Criminal Chamber of the Provincial Court of Guayas last September 20.

Articles 489, 491, and 493 of TITLE VII of the Ecuadorian Criminal Code <> , entitled “CRIMES AGAINST HONOR,” establish, inter alia, enhanced penalties for persons who make “a false criminal accusation” or “any other expression made to discredit, dishonor, or disparage” an “authority.” In particular, under Article 493, persons who “make defamatory accusations against an authority” may be punished by a fine and one to three years in prison.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights <> , based on the American Convention on Human Rights <;lID=1> , established more than a decade ago that the use of the criminal law to sanction expressions about public officials violates article 13 of the American Convention, which protects freedom of expression. Such sanctions are unnecessary, disproportionate, and cannot be justified by any imperative social interest; they also constitute a form of indirect censorship given their intimidating and chilling effect on the discussion of matters in the public interest.

Principle 11 of the IACHR’s Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression  <;lID=1> maintains that “Laws that penalize offensive expressions directed at public officials, generally known as ‘desacato laws,’ restrict freedom of expression and the right to information.” Also, Principle 10 of this Declaration <;lID=1> establishes that “the protection of a person’s reputation should only be guaranteed through civil sanctions in those cases in which the person offended is a public official, a public person or a private person who has voluntarily become involved in matters of public interest. In addition, in these cases, it must be proven that in disseminating the news, the social communicator had the specific intent to inflict harm, was fully aware that false news was disseminated, or acted with gross negligence in efforts to determine the truth or falsity of such news.”

The Inter-American Court <> has also established, with regard to eventual civil sanctions, that civil judgments in cases involving freedom of expression must be strictly proportional so as not to have a chilling effect on said freedom, since “the fear of a civil penalty, [in light of a] claim […]  for […] very steep civil [damages], may be, in any case, equally or more intimidating and inhibiting for the exercise of freedom of expression than a criminal punishment, since it has the potential to [compromise] the personal and family life of an individual who accuses a public official, with the evident and very negative result of self-censorship both in the affected party and in other potential critics of the actions taken by a public official.”

The United Nations Rapporteur, for his part, has stated that in accordance with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights <> , public officials must be subject to a higher level of scrutiny and criticism in light of the public nature of their position.
Source: Cidh_ Prensa



~ by FSVSF Admin on 17 February, 2012.

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