A judge in Ecuador ruled Wednesday that the directors and former opinion editor of El Universo newspaper must serve three years in prison and pay $30 million to President Rafael Correa for an opinion article published in February. In addition, the judge ruled that the newspaper must pay Correa a separate $10 million.
In February, President Correa filed libel charges against El Universo directors Carlos Pérez, Nicolas Pérez and César Pérez, as well as then-opinion editor Emilio Palacio, after the newspaper published an opinion article by Palacio entitled “No to Lies.” Correa argued that the piece, in which he is repeatedly referred to as “El Dictador,” unjustly accuses him of ordering security forces to open fire on civilians at the hospital where the president was detained for several hours last fall. Though Correa originally sued for $80 million in damages, he has said he “will not keep one cent” of the money, and that the reason the ruling is important is that it sets a historic precedent, signaling “the beginning of the end of abuses by corrupt press.”
Palacio, who resigned last week from El Universo in hopes that President Correa would drop the charges against him and the newspaper, has said that the president misinterpreted his meaning. “I was not accusing the president, only warning him” that a future opponent could do so, he wrote in a column last Thursday. Palacio plans to appeal the judge’s ruling and says he was not given the opportunity to present evidence in court. El Universo will do the same. In an editorial published yesterday the newspaper said it “rejects this sentence of 80 pages, dictated in record time” and that its lawyers “will exhaust all national and international means of recourse.”
Press freedom advocates have also criticized the ruling. Diego Cornejo, executive director of the Asociación Ecuatoriana de Editores de Periódicos (Ecuadorian Association of Newspaper Editors), said the suit and judge’s decisión could lead to censorship and self-censorship among the press. Gonzalo Marroquín, president of the Inter-American Press Association, called it “a grave hit against the most essential principals of freedom of expression.”