Ecuadoran courts should reverse editor’s libel conviction

New York, March 29, 2010—An Ecuadoran appellate court should overturn the libel conviction of editor Enrique Palacio, and the country’s legislators should reform archaic defamation laws that do not meet international standards for freedom of expression, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Palacio was sentenced Friday to three years in prison in connection with a commentary about a senior government finance official.

The case stems from a defamation complaint filed in October 2009 by Camilo Samán, chairman of Corporación Financiera Nacional, a government agency that grants loans to small businesses, according to local press reports. In a commentary published in the Guayaquil-based daily El Universo on August 27, 2009, Palacio criticized Samán for sending bodyguards to the newspaper to complain about a story concerning the finance corporation, local press reports said. Samán claimed the commentary damaged his reputation.

In rendering its verdict, a court in the province of Guayas also ordered Palacio, op-ed editor of El Universo, to pay $10,000 in legal costs, press reports said. Palacio said he will appeal the verdict.

Ecuador’s outdated criminal defamation provisions haven been systematically used to punish critical journalists, CPJ research shows. Milton Nelson Chacaguasay Flores, director of the weekly publication La Verdad in the city of Machala, served four months in prison last year on libel charges. The case stemmed from a 2007 story accusing Finance Minister Francisco Quevedo Madrid of having links to a man charged in a nationwide Ponzi scheme.

On Sunday, the Quito-based newspaper El Comercio outlined a series of six recent criminal defamation accusations against Ecuadoran journalists.

“We call on Ecuadoran judicial authorities to overturn the conviction of journalist Enrique Palacio”, said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior Americas program coordinator. “Ecuadoran lawmakers should reform defamation laws that are out of step with international standards on freedom of expression.”

Ecuadoran law also runs counter to the emerging consensus in Latin America that civil remedies provide adequate redress in cases of alleged defamation. In December 2009, the Costa Rican Supreme Court eliminated prison terms for criminal defamation. One month earlier, in November 2009, the Argentine Congress repealed criminal defamation provisions in the penal code. And in April 2009, Brazil’s Supreme Federal Tribunal annulled the 1967 Press Law, a measure that had imposed harsh penalties for libel and slander.