New York, December 28, 2011–The director of the Quito-based daily Hoy has been convicted on charges of criminal libel for articles depicting the political influence of an Ecuadoran banking official who is a relative of President Rafael Correa, news reports said.
On December 21, a judge sentenced Hoy newspaper executive Jaime Mantilla Anderson to three months in prison for a series of unbylined articles on Pedro Delgado, president of the board of directors of Ecuador’s central bank and Correa’s second cousin, news reports said. The articles, published in September and October 2009, claimed that Delgado wielded behind-the-scenes influence in the government, news accounts reported. In his complaint, Delgado claimed that Mantilla had refused to reveal the articles’ author or sources.
“We condemn this latest criminal libel sentence in Ecuador, which represents another serious blow to freedom of expression,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior coordinator for the Americas. “By intimidating the press with the threat of imprisonment, authorities are stifling coverage of issues of public interest and putting democracy at risk.”
Mantilla said he will appeal the ruling, Hoy reported. On Friday, Delgado said he was withdrawing the complaint, which local press groups said would mean the prison sentence would be rendered invalid, news reports said. But Hoy reported on Tuesday that Mantilla had no received official notification that the case had been dropped.
CPJ research shows that Ecuador’s criminal libel and defamation laws have been systematically used to punish critical journalists. In October, radio journalist Carlos Ignacio Cedeño was sentenced to a six-month prison term after being found guilty of criminal defamation. An editor and three executives from the news daily El Universo were sentenced to three years in prison and $40 million in fines in July on charges of defaming President Rafael Correa. Cedeño is currently in hiding to avoid arrest, while the El Universo executives are free on appeal and the opinion editor has fled to Miami.
Ecuadoran law runs counter to the emerging consensus in Latin America that civil remedies provide adequate redress in cases of alleged libel and 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 One month earlier, in November 2009, the Argentine Congress repealed criminal defamation provisions in the penal code.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.