CPJ to Correa: Release journalists jailed for defamation

CPJ wrote to Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa today to urge him to denounce the jailing of two journalists for defamation and to bring his country’s press law in line with international standards of freedom of expression and rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

December 11, 2008

President Rafael Correa
Palacio de Carondelet
García Moreno 1043, entre Chile y Espejo

Via facsimile: 593-2-258-0714 

Dear President Correa,

We are writing to express alarm at the imprisonment of two Ecuadoran journalists and to call for their immediate and unconditional release. Furthermore, we urge you to use the authority of your office to reform Ecuador’s archaic defamation laws, which are incompatible with international standards of freedom of expression and rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Freddy Aponte Aponte, a reporter for local radio station Luz y Vida in the southwestern city of Loja, was convicted of slander and sentenced to six months in prison, according to César Ricaurte, executive director of the local press group Fundamedios. The conviction, handed down by a Loja court in early year, was upheld on appeal in September. Aponte was jailed on October 29, and is being held at a minimum security prison in Loja.

The case against Aponte stemmed from a June 2007 segment of the journalist’s talk show “Primer Plano.” The former Loja mayor, José Bolívar Castillo Vivanco, filed defamation charges against Aponte, alleging the journalist called him a thief during the show, according to Fundamedios. Aponte denied the charge, local press reports said.

In a similar case, Milton Nelson Chacaguasay Flores, director of the weekly publication La Verdad in the city of Machala, was convicted of defamation and sentenced in November to 10 months in prison by a criminal court in the southwestern province of El Oro, according to local news reports. The journalist was detained on November 30 and transferred on December 5 from a minimum security prison in Machala to a maximum security prison in Quito for fear that other inmates may attempt to kill him, his son Luis Miguel Chacaguasay told CPJ.

In late 2007, Machala Judge Silvio Castillo filed slander charges against Chacaguasay claiming the journalist had offended him in a September 2007 article published in La Verdad that accused Castillo of corruption, according to Fundamedios. After Chacaguasay presented evidence that the article was paid for by a third party and was not written by him or any member of his staff, a criminal judge in Machala acquitted the journalist, CPJ sources said. But after Castillo, who was never referred to by name in the article, appealed the decision, Chacaguasay’s acquittal was overturned, Luis Miguel Chacaguasay said.

Laws that criminalize speech are incompatible with the rights established under Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which Ecuador has ratified. As the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) stated in 1994: “Considering the consequences of criminal sanctions and the inevitable chilling effect they have on freedom of expression, criminalization of speech can only apply in those exceptional circumstances when there is an obvious and direct threat of lawless violence.”

In April 2007, 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 to become the first countries in Latin America to repeal defamation as a criminal offense.

In August 2004, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights overturned the 1999 criminal defamation conviction of Costa Rican journalist Mauricio Herrera a reporter with the daily La Nación. The court ruled that the verdict violated the right to free expression and ordered Costa Rica to pay damages to the reporter. The court’s president, Judge Sergio García Ramírez, wrote a separate, concurring opinion questioning the criminalization of defamation and suggesting that such laws be repealed.

In September 2004, the Inter-American Court ruled in the case of Paraguayan politician Ricardo Canese that his criminal defamation conviction violated international law. The court declared that the criminal proceedings themselves violated the American Convention on Human Rights because they were not “necessary in a democratic society.”

Despite growing consensus among international bodies that civil remedies provide adequate redress for press offenses, outdated criminal defamation laws remain on the books in your country. CPJ believes that civil, not criminal, law provides the appropriate redress in cases of defamation.

We call on you to publicly condemn the jailing of journalists, and we ask the Ecuadoran judicial authorities to release Apponte and Chacaguasay immediately and unconditionally. We urge you to present legislation before the Constituent Assembly to repeal criminal defamation provisions, to align Ecuador with international standards on freedom of expression.

Thank you for your attention on this urgent matter. We await your response.


Joel Simon
Executive Director