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Nations urge Ecuador to guarantee freedom of expression

By Carlos Lauría/CPJ Americas Senior Program Coordinator on May 24, 2012 12:11 PM ET

Stressing concerns of human rights groups about the deterioration of press conditions under the administration of President Rafael Correa, 17 members of the United Nations submitted recommendations to Ecuador on freedom of expression issues before the U.N. Human Rights Council this week. While Ecuador tried to pass off the criticism as resulting from ignorance, the states' observations made clear that the international community is fully aware of Correa's repressive tactics against the local media.

Using a mechanism known as the Universal Periodic Review, established by the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2006, U.N. member states assess the degree to which countries are fulfilling their international human rights obligations. Under this procedure, states have the right to raise questions and make recommendations to the government of the country under review; each state is reviewed every four years. The process provides the opportunity to redress human rights violations, and requires governments to publicly state which recommendations they will implement. Non-governmental organizations can submit their own reports and recommendations, which are compiled by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and can be utilized by member states.

Germany, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Estonia, the United States, Slovakia, Latvia, Luxemburg, Norway, France, India, Sweden, Switzerland, Costa Rica, and the United Kingdom all introduced recommendations Monday before the Council, most of them related to Ecuadoran legislation that criminalizes speech.

Most of the recommendations, 12 out of 17, came from European states. Belgium was the first one to speak out: "We have reports on freedom of expression abuses, the improper use of criminal law, persecution of journalists..., we expect the compliance with international law on freedom of expression and that the visit of the rapporteur on freedom of expression will be accepted." Correa likely paid close attention; he studied economics in Belgium, and his wife is a Belgian native.

The U.S. and Europe expressed concern about the use of criminal defamation laws against government critics; Switzerland said the Ecuadoran press is working in a climate of censorship; and Sweden expressed alarm over the conviction of three executives and the former opinion editor of the leading national daily El Universo.

The Ecuadoran delegation to Geneva was made up of more than 100 officials, including Vice-President Lenin Moreno Garcés and Foreign Affairs Minister Ricardo Patiño. The latter said "ignorance" was the reason behind international criticism. "Those who travel to Ecuador will realize how freedom of expression is respected and promoted," Patiño said, according to press reports.

Ecuador has until September to identify which recommendations the government will accept or reject -- the Human Rights Council will officially adopt an "outcome statement" at that time. But Ecuadoran officials said they anticipate responding as soon as Friday.

CPJ research shows that Correa's administration has led Ecuador into an era of widespread repression by systematically filing defamation lawsuits and smearing critics.

CPJ, together with PEN International and Fundamedios, an Ecuadoran press freedom organization, submitted a report for consideration before the U.N. Human Rights Council. Among our joint recommendations, we called on Ecuadoran authorities to stop the use of outdated criminal defamation laws to silence critical journalists, editors, and media executives; repeal criminal defamation laws or enact superseding defamation laws that meet international standards of freedom of expression; and halt the use of retaliatory civil defamation lawsuits that silence critical journalists and have a chilling effect on expression by demanding disproportionate damages.

Last week, together with CPJ Senior Adviser Jean-Paul Marthoz, Fundamedios Executive Director César Ricaurte, and the group's project director, Mauricio Alarcón, I traveled to Geneva, the headquarters of the U.N. Human Rights Council, to meet with diplomats prior to Ecuador's review. We also stopped in Brussels to visit European deputies and members of the EU Commission responsible for relations with Andean countries. During these meetings, we expressed our concern about the grave damage done to free expression in Ecuador by the government's pattern of subjecting critical journalists to long and debilitating legal reprisals.

Latin American diplomats in Geneva are fully aware of the situation, yet no countries from the region except Costa Rica presented observations before the Council. While disappointing, the decision by Latin America to keep silent about the official repression against the Ecuadoran press came as no surprise. As CPJ's executive director noted in his introductory essay to CPJ's Attacks on the Press in 2010, the Organization of American States, "which has been paralyzed by ideological battles in Latin America, rarely speaks out on press freedom violations."


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