Newspaper director gets jail for defamation in Ecuador

New York, March 12, 2013–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the prison sentence issued Friday to Yaco Martínez, director of the daily La Nación in the province of Carchi. Martínez was convicted of defaming a former governor with an article published in his newspaper, according to news reports.

The charges stem from a September report in La Nación claiming that then-Gov. María Helena Villarreal would have her former chief of staff run the state’s affairs during her vacation even though he no longer held formal office, according to news reports. The former official, Julio Torres, had been forced to resign a few months earlier when a gas distribution plan resulted in widespread demonstrations. Villarreal denied the report and filed a complaint against Martínez in his role as director of the newspaper, saying her reputation had been damaged, according to the local press freedom group Fundamedios. Villarreal herself was forced to resign weeks after the article appeared in relation to the gas protests.

Martínez was sentenced to one month in prison and ordered to pay US$30,000 in damages plus Villarreal’s legal fees. The journalist said he would appeal and argued that the judge should be removed from the case because, according to Martinez, his wife is a cousin of the plaintiff, according to news reports.

The criminal conviction runs counter to consensus among the region’s courts and legislatures, which have found over the past decade that civil remedies provide adequate redress in cases of alleged libel and slander. Jurisprudence by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and declarations by the Organization of American States’ special rapporteur on freedom of expression have repeatedly found that public officials should be subject to a higher level of scrutiny. Yet Ecuador has spearheaded a resurgence in the use of archaic criminal defamation laws by some governments in the region to silence dissent.

“Free expression is truly in danger when a newspaper can’t report on the activities of politicians. We condemn this sentence against Yaco Martínez and urge judicial authorities to reverse the conviction on appeal,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “Some Ecuadoran politicians may be thin-skinned when scrutinized, but their sensitivities should not dictate what citizens can read or hear.”

Last year, courts upheld defamation convictions against executives of the daily El Universo and authors of the book Big Brother in connection with their critical coverage of President Rafael Correa’s administration. The president, who initiated the complaints, later pardoned the journalists, but the rulings cast a chill on in-depth reporting.