On Thursday, February 16, Ecuador’s highest court upheld a verdict favoring President Rafael Correa in a libel case against newspaper El Universo. The original libel suit was triggered by an opinion column written by journalist Emilio Palacio. As Milton Ramirez reported in a previous post for Global Voices:
According to Correa’s lawyer, Palacio’s editorial [es] imputed to his client [es] allegations of murder, crimes against humanity and the ordering of troops to open fire on the hospital where Correa was being held on September 30, 2010.
Tania Lara in the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas Blog explains the court’s ruling:
The Ecuadoran court’s ruling represents the end of the line, as the newspaper has exhausted its resources appealing the sentence against the daily, the largest in Ecuador. The court’s decision upheld the sentence of three years in prison and a $30 million fine against former newspaper columnist Emilio Palacio, who has sought asylum in the United States, and the owners of the newspaper, brothers Carlos, César and Nicolás Pérez. What’s more, the newspaper itself is being fined another $10 million, according to the Associated Press.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has called the verdict a, “bad precedent for free press in the Americas.” Furthermore, Senior Americas Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría declared: “It is outrageous that Ecuador’s leading newspaper may go bankrupt and its directors be imprisoned because they published an opinion column that harshly criticized the president.”
President Rafael Correa speaking out against information published in newspaper El Universal on October 6, 2011 in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Image by Flickr user Presidencia de la República del Ecuador, used under Creative Commons license: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)"
Ecuadorian netizens have also expressed their outrage. Lawyer and avid Twitter user Pablo Garzón published a series of tweets on Thursday, February 16:
@pgarzon: In your house, with your friends, let them know that the El Universo case was not a fair trial, basic rules and procedures were violated
@pgarzon: If you didn’t read El Universo, if you don’t like Emilio Palacio, it doesn’t matter. Now they can commit the same offense against any newspaper, understand it!
Meanwhile, other Twitter users are using the hasthags #ElUniverso and #LibertadDeExprexión (“freedom of speech”) to discuss the verdict. Byron Mayorga (@bmayorga) tweeted:
The #ElUniverso issue should have been solved under other circumstances: mediation, arbitration.
To which Ivan Danilo (@monoarre) replied:
@bmayorga Mediation when both sides want to negotiate, that was not the case this time
On Thursday night, a peaceful protest (“plantón” in Spanish) was held in Quito, the capital, to reject the verdict against El Universo. Gabriela Fajardo (@GabyFajardo) shared several photos of the protest on Twitter (1, 2, 3), as did Roberto V. (@robvillavicencio).
But President Correa’s supporters have also voiced their opinion online. On Facebook, in a page called “I support Rafael Correa,” [es] several users have celebrated the verdict, like Elizabeth Gaona [es], Ferando Guerra [es], and Jorge Sánchez [es]. The latter wrote:
A precedent for Ecuadorian justice has been set … it was about time that they stop these mediocre journalists we have in our media, certainly not all, but most are not independent [and] only look after their interests. Too bad that in our country we have lawyers who try to defend the indefensible, crafty, vile mercenaries who seek money by any trick to get away with what they want. Justice in Ecuador has been inaugurated.
Finally, blogger Silvana Tapia from Lunas Azules [es] wrote a lengthy post on the judicial and penal law aspects of the case. She concludes:
As a lawyer, as a scholar of criminal law, as a mother, as a teacher and as a woman, I reject the break with human rights that has been perpetrated by the Ecuadorian justice, and that will worsen with the legal projects [es] currently under discussion. Our innovative and humanistic Constitution, who many of us voted for, and in which we still believe, contains all the tools necessary to ensure the real validity of human rights, but for now it is just a book of white pages placed on a shelf.
Update: Global Voices contributor Milton Ramirez wrote an excellent post on the case. Read it in Spanish here.