Ecuador’s Corte Constitucional (Constitutional Court) has delivered numerous controversial verdicts in the past six months with regard to freedom of the press and freedom of expression. But in a strange twist of events, on Monday President Rafael Correa pardoned the convicted defendants of two cases in which he was the plaintiff. It is a welcome change, but it is one nonetheless that is too little, too late. In fact, it presents a danger that the pressure from the international human rights community will lessen in Ecuador at this very crucial moment in which the proposed Ley de Comunicación (Communication Law) is being debated.
In late 2011, Ecuador's highest court ruled on three landmark cases with regard to freedom of expression. First, the court found the opinion editor and two directors the El Universo newspaper guilty of libel, sentencing them to three years in jail and $40 million in damages. The court also found the authors of the book El Gran Hermano, which was critical of Correa, guilty of libel and ordered each to pay a $1 million fine. Finally, Indigenous activist Monica Chuji was found guilty of spreading libel about Minister Vinicio Alvarado in an interview published in the newspaper El Comercio; Chuji was sentenced to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine; Chuji’s appeal is still being considered.
After much international pressure from human rights organizations, such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), President Correa pardoned the convicted defendants in the El Universo and El Gran Hermano cases, effectively archiving the cases and dismissing the penalties. However, because the court already delivered their rulings for these aforementioned two cases, those decisions stand as precedent within the judicial system. Similarly, in his pardon Correa declared that if anyone was to publish similarly libelous material, he would not hesitate to bring suit again.
The strategic timing of these pardons reveals Correa’s true intent. First, the pardon aims to get the international spotlight off the Ecuadorian media and the debate surrounding the proposed Ley de Comunicación. A special commission of legislators presented the newly drafted communication law earlier this month; while it contains some important changes from the draft previously presented by President Correa in July 2009, it still remains ambiguous in key areas—leaving space for abuse by the executive and judicial branches.
Although a Venezuelan Supreme Court ruling earlier this week barred him from holding elected office, Leopoldo López, a leading opposition candidate, pledged yesterday to continue his presidential campaign. The Supreme Court mandated that the verdict reached last month by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) was “unfeasible.” The IACHR verdict in question demanded that Venezuela overturn a six-year ban on López holding public office, the former mayor of the Chacao district in Caracas, issued in 2008.
The ban successfully disqualified López from running for mayor of Caracas in 2008, and it attempts to do the same for the upcoming presidential contest. López founded the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) political party, which is part of the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (Coalition for Democratic Unity, or MUD) opposition bloc. Although the Supreme Court ruled that López could not hold public office, Supreme Court President Luisa Estella Morales did say that López “can freely sign up and participate in elections.”
One day after the Supreme Court issued its decision, López wrote in a blog post, “Today I affirm my presidential candidacy because I am qualified in justice and in right.” López continued his defiance in a speech yesterday to supporters where he said, “I can and I am going to be a candidate for the presidency.” He is currently placing third in the polls among opposition candidates.
In a February 12, 2012, primary, the MUD will select its candidate to contest President Hugo Chávez. The presidential election is scheduled for October 7, 2012.