An Ecuadoran judge’s harsh sentence against a newspaper that criticised the President will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in the country, Amnesty International has said.
A court in the coastal city of Guayaquil on Wednesday sentenced three directors and a former columnist of El Universo to three years in prison and imposed punitive damages totalling US$40 million.
Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa sued the newspaper for criminal libel after a February 2011 column called him a “dictator”.
“This harsh sentence is an attack on the right to free speech for everyone in Ecuador, and will discourage journalists from engaging in legitimate criticism of the government,” said Guadalupe Marengo, Amnesty International’s Deputy Americas Director.
“Libel cases should be dealt with in civil trials and should not involve jail terms. Peaceful criticism of government policies must never be the subject of criminal proceedings, as regional and international human rights bodies have unequivocally stated.”
The criminal suit was brought against El Universo in March after the newspaper’s opinion editor Emilio Palacio published a column questioning a military raid to rescue President Correa last September.
The President had been trapped for several hours inside a hospital besieged by protesting police in the capital, Quito. At least eight people, including two police officers, were reportedly killed in the incident.
The government regarded the events as an attempted coup and scores of police officers were subsequently placed under investigation for a range of offences.
Palacio’s column insinuated that the President could in future face possible trial for ordering the military to open fire on a hospital.
According to media reports, the President rejected offers from El Universo to print a correction or to settle the case out of court.
In a video statement on his official website, the President responded to the sentence by saying that “the reign of terror marked by a corrupt press is coming to an end.”
The latest case comes amid mounting concern about restrictions on freedom of expression in Ecuador. A referendum in May included a question about restrictions on news media ownership and creation of a government oversight body to review “excesses” in media content.
“It seems that the courts have allowed President Correa to make an example of El Universo in this case simply for publishing views that are critical of the President,” said Guadalupe Marengo.
“Ecuador’s government must respect freedom of expression and allow journalists to criticise those in power without fear of being shut down or facing jail time or other harsh sentences.”
Emilio Palacio announced that they would appeal the sentence and ask for the judge’s ruling to be annulled.