Police officers are seen in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on March 19, 2020. Journalist Juán Sarmiento was recently sentenced to jail time over comments about a local official. (Reuters/Santiago Arcos)

Ecuadorian journalist Juán Sarmiento sentenced to prison for ‘discrediting’ local official

Bogotá, November 20, 2020 – Ecuadorian authorities should not contest journalist Juan Sarmiento’s appeal of a recent criminal conviction for critical comments about a local politician, and the country should remove speech laws from its penal code, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On November 12, the Justice Court of Napo, in central Ecuador, upheld a lower court decision convicting Sarmiento of making “expressions of discredit or dishonor,” an offense under Ecuador’s criminal code, and sentence him to 10 days in prison, according to news reports, the Quito-based press freedom organization Fundamedios, and the court decision, which CPJ reviewed.

Sarmiento is the director and host of the nightly news and opinion program “Tendencia Digital“ which airs on Facebook and several TV stations in Napo, he told CPJ via messaging app. The lower court and the Justice Court’s rulings refer to a series of Sarmiento’s posts on social media in April and May 2020, as well as episodes of “Tendencia Digital” shared on his personal Facebook account, as the basis for the charges, according to the court documents.

The charges relate to comments and news reports Sarmiento posted about Napo Governor Patricio Espíndola’s alleged mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, according to those court documents. Sarmiento frequently posts political commentary and links to his reporting on his personal Facebook account.

Sarmiento told CPJ he plans to file a constitutional writ of appeal to contest the court’s decision. If that appeal is not accepted, he will be arrested and sent to a prison in the nearby town of Archidona, at a facility that also houses violent criminals, he said.

“By convicting journalist Juan Sarmiento for ‘dishonoring’ a local official and sentencing him to prison, Ecuadorian courts are sending the dangerous message that authorities cannot be questioned for their actions relating to the coronavirus pandemic,” said CPJ South and Central America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. “Ecuadorian authorities should not contest his appeal, and must urgently implement reforms to eliminate archaic criminal defamation provisions still on the books. Defamation complaints against the press should be settled in civil courts.”

In one clip from “Tendencia Digital” posted on April 20 and shared on his personal page, Sarmiento discussed concerns related to the spread of COVID-19 in the region, criticized Espíndola, and called on him to resign. In a separate post on May 29, Sarmiento again called on Espíndola to resign over the local government’s alleged failure to provide coronavirus tests for people unable to afford those offered by private laboratories.

On July 30, Espíndola filed a criminal complaint, claiming that the journalist’s comments had harmed his reputation and caused emotional and moral damage, a misdemeanor under the criminal code’s “contraventions” section for minor crimes, according to Fundamedios and the court documents.

On October 8, a criminal court in Tena, the capital of Napo province, found Sarmiento guilty, sentenced him to 10 days in prison, ordered him to pay a fine of about $32, and stated that he must publicly apologize to the governor, Sarmiento told CPJ.

Sarmiento appealed the criminal court’s decision, but a panel of three appellate court judges at the Justice Court of Napo, in Tena, upheld the decision on November 12, according to Fundamedios.

Sarmiento told CPJ that he believes the suit was an attempt to intimidate independent journalists and restrict his journalistic coverage of the governor on “Tendencia Digital.”

“The clear intention is to silence me,” Sarmiento told CPJ.

CPJ contacted Espíndola via messaging app for comment, but he did not respond. CPJ called Ecuador’s Justice Ministry but there was no answer.