Ecuadoran provincial reporter jailed on defamation charges

New York, May 2, 2011–Provincial Ecuadoran radio journalist Walter Vite Benítez was sentenced Wednesday to one year imprisonment on criminal defamation charges stemming from a critical comment about the local mayor made three years ago. The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Ecuadoran authorities to release Vite and bring the country’s press law into compliance with international standards on freedom of expression. 

According to the local press freedom group Fundamedios, Vite was arrested Wednesday by police in the northern city of Esmeraldas after a local judge sentenced the journalist to one year in prison, and fined him US$500.

The charges stem from a comment made by Vite three years ago on an opinion program on Iris radio, according to press reports. Vite, who criticized Esmeraldas’ mayor Ernesto Estupiñán’s performance, told Fundamedios that he never mentioned the official by name and instead referred only to “a mayor.” The journalist believes that he is being persecuted for his critical reporting on city government and has started a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment, according to Fundamedios press reports.  

“The decision to imprison Vite on defamation charges shows that Ecuador is out of step with the regional consensus to decriminalize defamation,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior coordinator for the Americas. “We call on the local authorities to release Vite, drop criminal defamation charges, and bring legislation in line with international standards on freedom of expression.”

CPJ research shows that Ecuador’s outdated criminal defamation provisions have been systematically used to punish critical journalists. In March, President Rafael Correa filed a defamation complaint against three executives and the opinion editor from the Ecuadoran daily El Universo after the paper’s publication of a biting column in which Correa is referred to as “the dictator.” Correa has also filed a $10 million civil defamation lawsuit against investigative journalists Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita, authors of a book called “Gran Hermano” (Big Brother) on official corruption.

Ecuadoran law runs counter to the emerging consensus in Latin America that civil remedies provide adequate redress in cases of alleged defamation.  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 One month earlier, in November 2009, the Argentine Congress repealed criminal defamation provisions in the penal code.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.”