Ecuadoran president sues critical news daily for defamation

New York, March 31, 2011–The critical Ecuadoran daily El Universo, three of its executives, and its opinion editor could face jail time and hefty fines in a defamation complaint filed by President Rafael Correa last week. Correa should immediately drop the defamation suit and bring the country’s press law into compliance with international standards on freedom of expression, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.   

Correa filed the suit against El Universo’s executives Carlos Pérez Barriga, César Pérez Barriga, and Nicolás Pérez Barriga (who are brothers) along with opinion editor Emilio Palacio, the Guayaquil-based paper reported on Tuesday. According to El Universo, the complaint was filed on March 22 but the paper and its staff have not been notified yet. The Ecuadoran president is seeking a three-year prison term for each defendant and $80 million in damages from the paper and its staff, press reports said.

“When Rafael Correa entered political life, he voluntarily chose to subject himself to public scrutiny and criticism,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior Americas program coordinator. “It’s outrageous that as president he would put his own reputation ahead of the national interest of ensuring a robust public debate. We call on President Correa not only to drop the defamation suit but also work with Congress to repeal criminal insult laws that contradict international standards on freedom of expression.”

The lawsuit stems from a biting column published in El Universo on February 6, in which Palacios refers to Correa as “the dictator.” In reference to a police uprising last September during which three people were killed, Palacios insinuated that Correa’s actions may have constituted crimes against humanity.

In an interview aired on the news website Ecuadorinmediato, Correa called Palacios’ column irresponsible and insisted that the paper’s directors should be held responsible for publishing the piece as well as the columnist himself.

CPJ research shows that Ecuador’s outdated criminal defamation provisions have been systematically used to punish critical journalists. In March 2010, Palacio was convicted of libel and ordered to pay $10,000 in legal costs after criticizing a government finance official in a commentary. The official withdrew the complaint in June, and charges were dismissed.   

Ecuadoran law 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.

There is a growing body of international legal opinion that public officials should not enjoy protection from scrutiny. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights 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.”