Universo verdict a devastating setback for freedom of expression
Reporters Without Borders
On February 15 Ecuador's
National Court of Justice in Quito upheld the sentences imposed by
lower courts against the newspaper El Universo and three of its
representatives in a libel case brought by President Rafael Correa.
No further legal avenues
are available to prevent Carlos, César and Nicolás Pérez,
respectively director and deputy directors of the newspaper, from
serving three-year prison sentences and its publishing company from
having to pay 40 million dollars in compensation to President Correa.
Lawyers for El Universo
said they would apply to the Inter-American Commission on Human
"The consequences of
this decision have implications far beyond the El Universo case. The
National Court of Justice has rubber-stamped a licence for
self-censorship which could well have repercussions on other media
organizations in the future, whatever their politics and whatever
kind of government is in place," Reporters Without Borders said.
Correa brought a case as a private individual and not as head of
state, it is difficult not to see such an excessive penalty as a
return to 'lèse-majesté,' which does not tally with the principles
of the rule of law, which require a democratically elected government
to accept criticism, however scathing and unjust.
only get worse, to the point where it might undermine the debate on
the new communication law, some of whose provisions we find laudable.
"It's a mess."
While the El Universo
representatives, or at least one of them --- César and Nicolás
Pérez are currently in Miami --- is in detention, the press freedom
organization is unable to accept the invitation from the Ecuadoran
government to take part in a forum on freedom of information.
[Editor's note: Carlos Pérez
took refuge in the Panamanian Embassy in Quito, and was granted asylum
by the Panamanian government. As this story was uploaded his safe
passage to Panama was being arranged.]
The violent scenes
outside the court while the hearing was taking place, during which El
Universo photographer Diógenes Baldeón and cameraman Romel Iza of
the RTU television were attacked, illustrate the extent to which
opinion is polarised among Ecuadoran society. We condemn these
assaults, for which activists of the ruling Alianza País party were
believed to be responsible.
These incidents show that
the conditions for the proceedings to take place in a calm atmosphere
did not exist.