El Universo Journalist and Directors Sentenced to Three Years in Prison for Libel
PEN International protests the three-year prison sentences and US$40 million in fines imposed on El Universo columnist Emilio Palacio and the newspaper’s co-directors Carlos Eduardo Pérez Barriga, César Enrique Pérez Barriga, and Carlos Nicolás Pérez Enrique on July 20, 2011, for allegedly libeling President Rafael Correa in an article published in February this year. PEN calls on the president to withdraw the case and to ensure that defamation and other press offenses are decriminalized in line with Ecuador’s international human rights obligations.
In March 2011, President Rafael Correa brought criminal libel charges against Emilio Palacio, columnist for the Guayaquil-based daily El Universo, and the newspaper’s co-directors Carlos Eduardo Pérez Barriga, César Enrique Pérez Barriga and Carlos Nicolás Pérez Enrique over a February 6, 2011 article entitled “No to Lies.”
In the article, Palacio refers to President Correa as “the dictator,” accusing him of wanting to pardon three policemen who were behind an uprising on September 30, 2010, during which several people were killed. He also insinuates that the president may be guilty of crimes against humanity by allegedly ordering troops to open fire on a police hospital where he sought refuge after being attacked by protesters. The president asked the court to sentence each of the defendants to the maximum of three years in prison and to fine them US$50 million under Article 493 of the Ecuadorian Criminal Code. He also sought US$30 million in damages from the newspaper’s parent company.
On July 7, Palacio resigned from El Universo in the hope that the move would lead President Correa to withdraw the case. However, this proved unsuccessful and the trial began on July 19, attended by the president in person. That day, the co-directors of El Universo offered to print a correction drafted by the president, an offer which he rejected despite having previously said he would drop the case if such a correction were published.
On July 20, less than 24 hours after the trial started, the four journalists were sentenced to three years in prison each and fined a total of US$30 million. The paper’s parent company was also ordered to pay an additional US$10 million in damages. According to the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the defendants must also pay US$2 million to the president’s attorneys in legal fees. The IACHR Special Rapporteur also said that prior to the hearing the government had issued several statements disparaging El Universo, its board members and Palacio, and that groups of protesters supportive of the government reportedly insulted the defendants and a witness as they left the tribunal.
Palacio and the three El Universo directors intend to appeal the verdict. The president reportedly also plans to lodge an appeal in order to seek the full US$80 damages requested, which he claims he will donate to a government environment project. The judgment, if it stands, could force El Universo to close; it is one of the biggest newspapers in Ecuador.
Ecuador has made a habit of using its outdated criminal defamation laws to punish critical journalists. La Verdad editor Milton Chacaguasay Flores was jailed several times in 2008-09 for allegedly libeling a judge, and a radio journalist was sentenced to one year in prison in May 2011 for supposedly defaming a local mayor. President Correa also filed a civil defamation suit against investigative journalists Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita, seeking US$10 million for “moral damages” allegedly caused by their book on official corruption, El Gran Hermano (Big Brother).
The judgment against El Universo comes at a time when a proposed new communications law promoted by President Correa is being debated in the country.
Write A Letter
- Protesting the three-year prison sentences and US$40 million in fines imposed on El Universo columnist Emilio Palacio and the newspaper’s co-directors Carlos Eduardo Pérez Barriga, César Enrique Pérez Barriga, and Carlos Nicolás Pérez Enrique on July 20, 2011, for allegedly libeling President Rafael Correa;
- Calling on President Correa to withdraw the case;
- Urging the president and government to decriminalize defamation and all other press offenses in line with Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights and the jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Send Your Letter To
Presidente Rafael Correa
Palacio de Carondelet, García Moreno No. 10-43, entre Chile y Espejo, Quito, Ecuador
Fax: +593 2 258 0714
Messages may also be sent through the Presidency’s official web site
Salutation: Dear Mr President/ Sr. Presidente
Justice and Human Rights Minister
Johana Pesántez Benítez
Ministra de Justicia y Derechos Humanos
Av. Amazonas No. 34-451 y Atahualpa, Quito, Ecuador
Fax: +593 2 292 3804/ +593 2 246 4914
Email: [email protected]
Salutation: Dear Minister/Sr. Ministro
Please copy appeals to the diplomatic representative for Ecuador in your country if possible.
Please check with PEN if sending appeals after October 3, 2011: ftw [at] pen.org