The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based nonprofit organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide, is concerned about Ecuadorian journalist Rodrigo Fierro Benítez, who was convicted of criminal defamation in 2003 and whose sentence was recently upheld.
On June 2, former president of Ecuador, León Febres-Cordero filed criminal charges against Fierro, a columnist for the Quito-based daily El Comercio. The lawsuit stemmed from a May 29, 2003, opinion piece Fierro wrote for El Comercio titled “Febres-Cordero: en su sitio” (Febres-Cordero: In His Place), which accused the former president of colluding with other politicians and businessmen to serve the interests of local oligarchs. Contending that Fierro’s piece had damaged his family’s and his own reputation, Febres-Cordero, who is currently a parliamentary deputy for the Social Christian Party, filed a criminal defamation lawsuit requesting damages of US$1 million. The Penal Code carries up to two years in prison for criminal defamation, and Febres-Cordero asked for a full sentence. On September 19, Judge Luis Mora sentenced Fierro to six months in prison and ordered him to pay US$1,000 in legal fees to Febres-Cordero’s lawyer. According to Fierro, Judge Mora also ordered him to pay damages in an amount yet to be determined.
On September 22, Fierro appealed his sentence before the Quito Superior Court of Justice. On December 12, this higher court upheld the lower-court ruling against Fierro, but reduced his sentence to 30 days in prison and lowered the legal fees payable to Febres-Cordero’s lawyer to US$100. The court further ruled that the damages sought by Febres-Cordero should be assessed in a civil trial.
On December 15, Fierro asked the Quito Superior Court of Justice to suspend the execution of his sentence, based on Article 82 of Ecuador’s Penal Code, which allows for such suspension provided that the person convicted does not have a previous criminal record and that the prison sentence given is no longer than 6 months. But on January 9, 2004, the Quito Superior Court of Justice dismissed Fierro’s request.
On January 12, Fierro filed an appeal for annulment (recurso de casación) before the Supreme Court of Justice, over which Your Excellency presides. Fierro’s lawyer, Ramiro Aguilar, told CPJ that the Supreme Court of Justice sent a note on January 19, saying that the appeal for annulment had been admitted.
We believe that laws criminalizing critical speech that does not incite lawless violence are incompatible with the right to freedom of expression as established under Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights. As the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) stated in 1994, “The fear of criminal sanctions necessarily discourages people from voicing their opinions on issues of public concern particularly when the legislation fails to distinguish between facts and value judgments. Political criticism often involves value judgments.”
More recently, the IACHR’s Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, approved in October 2000, reaffirmed 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.”
We believe that Fierro’s conviction on criminal defamation charges constitutes a setback for freedom of expression in Ecuador. We hope that the court, presided over by Your Excellency, considers Fierro’s case in light of the international standards on freedom of expression articulated by the IACHR.
Thank you for your attention to this serious matter.