Ecuadoran journalists Christian Zurita (right) and Juan Carlos Calderón have been ordered to pay President Correa US$1 million each in damages for defamation. (AFP/Agencia Prensa Independiente)

Ecuadoran journalists ordered to pay president $2 million

February 7, 2012 4:53 PM ET

New York, February 7, 2012--The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the sentence handed to two Ecuadoran journalists yesterday after they were found guilty of defaming President Rafael Correa.

A regional civil court ordered journalists Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita to pay US$1 million in damages each to Correa, as well as US$100,000 for the plaintiff's legal fees, news reports said. The journalists were charged with defaming Correa in their book Big Brother in which they alleged that the president's older brother, Fabricio Correa, had obtained US$600 million in state contracts, largely for road construction, news reports said. Ecuadoran law bars presidential family members from using their relationships for economic gain, CPJ research shows.

After details of the corruption emerged, Correa canceled the contracts, saying he had been unaware of the arrangements, but then filed a US$10 million defamation lawsuit against the journalists and devoted three cadenas (presidential broadcast addresses that pre-empt programming on all stations nationwide) to discrediting the book and its authors, news reports said. In the ruling, the judge said the accusations against the president had caused him moral damage akin to "spiritual harm," according to news reports.

"The scale of the damages awarded in this case are punitive and clearly designed to crush all critical voices," said Carlos Lauría, CPJ's senior Americas program coordinator. "President Correa has a history of using defamation laws to silence critical journalists, which must stop. The appeal court must overturn this decision."

Leading Ecuadoran daily El Universo reported that a state-owned television station announced the sentence before the defendants themselves had been notified. Calderón told CPJ that he and Zurita will appeal the decision.

CPJ research shows that Correa's administration has led Ecuador into an era of widespread repression by filing defamation lawsuits, pre-empting private news broadcasts, enacting restrictive legal measures, and smearing critics. The administration also recently spearheaded the approval of recommendations to the Organization of American States (OAS) that could seriously weaken the work of the organization's Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, which has been critical of his policies.

A growing body of international legal opinion, including that of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, argues that public officials should not enjoy protection from scrutiny. In 2000, the United Nations, the OAS, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said that civil damages "should not be so large as to exert a chilling effect on freedom of expression and should be designed to restore the reputation harmed, not to compensate the plaintiff or to punish the defendant."

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