El Universo staff members carry a mock coffin to protest the court ruling that upheld the verdict against their colleagues. (AFP/Camilo Pareja)
El Universo staff members carry a mock coffin to protest the court ruling that upheld the verdict against their colleagues. (AFP/Camilo Pareja)

In Ecuador, a crushed and silenced democracy

The sentence against Ecuadoran newspaper El Universo, its opinion editor, Emilio Palacio Urrutia, and its three top executives, Carlos Eduardo Pérez Barriga, César Enrique Pérez Barriga, and Carlos Nicolás Pérez Lapentti, for supposed offenses against Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa in Palacio’s article “NO to lies,” is a worn-out manifestation of the perverse concept of public freedoms that certain elected governments manipulate. They pervert their legitimacy with an authoritarian self-assuredness that permeates their exercise of power.

The violation of freedom of expression here is notorious, and its illegitimacy flies in the face of international standards on the subject. Any criminal conviction for supposed offenses against the honor of public officials is illegitimate, because it curtails the right to criticize, because it undermines society’s control on the powers that be, and because it erodes tolerance in the face of the other, which is inherent to democracy and its values. Likewise, any irrational or disproportionate civil judgment, that condemns a newspaper to close or be expropriated for the private profit of the president, is unacceptable nonsense. To ruin a journalist for saying what he thinks is an incalculable abuse, and to ruin editors and executives for permitting the journalist to express himself is to reissue the worst obscurantism.

This highlights the contradiction that is at the heart of this sentence, which falls within a more complex phenomenon: the use of the tools of democracy, rule of law, and the protection of human rights to bring down democracy. It is a true aberration that reveals a new wave of oppression by elected rulers, who have confused democracy with elections, which they have made a mere instrument for the seizing of power and to cloak the arbitrariness of an illegal judicial system.

Human rights are the historical tool of humankind to combat oppression–any kind of oppression, but above all that which originates with the State. It is nonsensical that this tool is being used by the State to knock down freedom of expression and the right to be informed–fundamental rights for all society–and to destroy a newspaper, imprison journalists and media executives, and enrich the president at their expense.

The ruling President Correa has obtained from the docile Ecuadoran judiciary has been molded to his whims, and it has a clear objective: to teach them a lesson. To teach them a lesson in Ecuador and in the other countries that follow his deplorable example. To make intolerance a tool to beat down anyone who dares to criticize and bother the majesty of the chief. In this case, the government is severely punishing those who dissent, demonizing those who criticize, and sending them to hell to silence them. It is a punishment that affects not only the convicted, but all of society. It is an antidemocratic lesson. The nefarious purpose of this ruling is to make journalists write with fear and to make media editors and owners–who are scared as well–censor their columnists and reporters lest they suffer the same fate as El Universo and its directors. They want to decree the hour of silence, when the guarantee of honor becomes fear. The hour in which the only expression that offers shelter from punishment is silence. An hour that belongs to an age of darkness. An hour of the unacceptable. A society steeped in fear and silence can never be democratic.