New York, February 27, 2012–Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa announced today that he would pardon several news managers and journalists he had sued for libel, but his actions in the cases have done grave damage to free expression in his country, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Correa had won separate libel complaints against executives of the daily El Universo and authors of the book The Big Brother concerning reporting critical of his administration.
“We are relieved that El Universo and its directors, along with the authors of The Big Brother, will not face penalties for having dared to criticize the president,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior Americas program coordinator. “But these cases are part of an alarming pattern in which the president and other Ecuadoran officials have subjected critical journalists to long and debilitating legal reprisals. Citizens’ fundamental right to freedom of expression should not be left up to the whims of a public official.”
Correa announced his pardon in a televised address, saying, “There is forgiveness, but it is not forgotten.” His statement was shown on large television screens outside the national palace in Quito and was accompanied by live folk bands, news reports said.
“Correa’s statement–that he is forgiving but not forgetting–is a thinly veiled warning to all journalists who might report critically on his administration,” Lauría said. “Ecuadoran authorities should ensure the free and robust debate that is a hallmark of democracy by eliminating recent restrictive laws, tolerating dissent, and refraining from retaliation.”
On February 16, Ecuador’s highest court upheld a criminal libel conviction against El Universo that sentenced its three directors and opinion editor to three years each in prison and a total of US$40 million in damages. The complaint stemmed from a February 2011 El Universo opinion column that insinuated the president could be charged with crimes against humanity for his actions during a police uprising in 2010. The libel case was marked by allegations of irregularities, the most significant of which was a defense charge that Correa’s lawyer wrote the trial court’s decision. The case became emblematic of deteriorating press freedom conditions in Ecuador and culminated in an epic 15-hour hearing earlier this month.
El Universo‘s lawyers said they were waiting for the appropriate papers to be filed for the pardon to go into effect, the newspaper reported.
Correa filed a separate civil libel complaint against investigative journalists Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita for allegations they made about the president’s brother in their book The Big Brother. On February 6, a judge ruled that the journalists had to pay Correa US$1 million each in damages, in addition to legal fees. Both the journalists and Correa, who had sought $10 million, appealed the case. In his address, Correa said he would withdraw the complaint.
CPJ research shows that Correa’s administration has led Ecuador into an era of widespread repression by systematically filing defamation lawsuits and smearing critics. In December, the director of the Quito-based daily Hoy was sentenced to prison on charges of criminal libel for articles depicting the political influence of an Ecuadoran banking official who was a relative of President Correa. After the sentence was issued, the official announced he would pardon the newspaper director and withdraw the complaint.