Ecuadoran President Correa should drop libel suit

New York, May 15, 2007—Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa Delgado should immediately drop a criminal defamation complaint filed against a top newspaper executive over a critical editorial, and he should help bring the country’s press laws into compliance with international standards on free expression, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Correa filed a libel suit May 10 against Francisco Vivanco Riofrío, president of the Quito-based daily La Hora over a critical editorial published in the paper on March 9, according to local press reports. The editorial, titled “Official Vandalism,” said that Correa intended to rule Ecuador “with turmoil, rocks and sticks.” The daily’s piece described the president’s behavior as “shameful.”

The president argued that the publication was defamatory and caused him “moral damage,” according to the complaint reviewed by CPJ. The suit is based on Article 230 of the country’s penal code that sets prison penalties of up to two years for “threats or libel would offend the president.”

The editorial was published during a crisis in March over the president’s attempt to schedule a referendum on whether to draft a new constitution. The daily particularly criticized Correa’s decision to use police to prevent several anti-referendum legislators from entering Congress. The referendum was ultimately scheduled in April, and the measure was approved by a wide margin. Fifty-seven legislators were removed from office during the crisis.

Local press reports said that Correa would drop the complaint only if the daily’s executive publicly apologized. In a press conference on Monday, Vivanco said that the paper would not do so because it believed in citizens’ rights to express their opinions.

“Fear of criminal penalties will inhibit the Ecuadoran press in reporting and commenting on issues of public interest,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on President Correa to drop the libel suit against Vivanco and repeal defamation laws that contradict international standards on freedom of expression.”

There is a growing consensus among international bodies that civil remedies provide adequate redress for press offenses. On April 12, Mexican President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa signed a bill that effectively eliminated libel and slander at the federal level, directing such complaints to the civil courts. Mexico joined El Salvador as the first countries in Latin America to repeal defamation as a criminal offense.

Though imprisonment for press offenses has fallen into disuse in the Americas, prosecution on criminal defamation charges remains common. A landmark 2004 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has led a number of politicians in the region to consider reforms that would wipe libel entirely from the criminal law books.

In the 2004 case, the Inter-American Court overturned the criminal defamation conviction of Costa Rican journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, a reporter with the daily La Nación. The Costa Rica-based court ruled that the conviction violated the reporter’s right to free expression, and it ordered the Costa Rican government to pay damages. The court’s president, Judge Sergio García Ramírez, wrote a separate, concurring opinion questioning the very basis for criminal defamation and suggesting that such laws be repealed.