[JURIST] Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa [official website, in Spanish; BBC profile] won a criminal libel claim [statement in El Ciudadano, in Spanish] on Thursday against the owners and a columnist of newspaper El Universo [official website, in Spanish], resulting in fines of USD $40 million and a three-year sentence for the offending journalist and editors. Emilio Palacio [Twitter account], Nicholas Perez, Cesar Perez and Carlos Perez, the owners of El Universo, were personally fined $30 million in addition to their sentences, while the newspaper itself was fined $10 million for printing the article. Palacio’s editorial, “No to the Lies!” [text, in Spanish] was published in February 2011 and referenced an incident in September 2010 when protesting police officers fired tear gas at Correa, surrounded the hospital at which he was being treated and trapped him there for 12 hours. Palacio’s editorial criticized Correa for pardoning the criminals and suggested he was doing so because the “attempted coup” was staged to increase his political power [JURIST report].
What happens is that the dictator finally realized (or his lawyers understood) that’s how [staged] the alleged crime of September 30 was, as everything was the result of an improvised script. … At this point, all the “evidence” to accuse the “coup” is disjointed: the Dictator recognizes that the terrible idea for the Regiment to go to Quito and join the force was his. No one could prepare to kill him because nobody expected it. … The Dictator should remember, finally, and this is very important for pardons in the future; a new President, perhaps his enemy, could lead him to a criminal court for ordering fire at will and without warning on a hospital full of civilians and innocent people. Crimes against humanity, do not forget, do not prescribe.
Judge Juan Paredas found El Universo in violation of Article 489 of the Criminal Code [text, PDF, in Spanish], “Slander occurs when there is any statement to discredit, dishonor or disparage another person, or any action performed with the same objective.” Correa’s lawyer, Vera Alembert, may appeal [Bloomberg report] to achieve the $80 million fine he originally sought. Palacio will appeal.
Correa remains resolute that the media in Ecuador is corrupt and must be harnessed. In a statement [El Ciudadano, in Spanish], he called the suit one of his greatest legacies, and that now the Ecuadoran “corrupt press” know they cannot “damage the honor of a person.” He also pointed to El Universo‘s willingness to apologize as a sign of their culpability: “[T]hey knew they had committed a crime, but pride prevented them, as required by the Constitution, to correct [their error].” El Universo, in fact, offered several times to retract the editorial, allow Correa to write his own correction and settle out-of-court, but Correa’s lawyer refused their settlement offers [AFP report]. El Universo remains defiant. The newspaper’s front page on the day of the verdict displayed a headline of “Condemned” followed by an Ayn Rand quotation: “When you see that men get richer by graft and pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you—when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice—you may know that your society is doomed.” El Universo‘s report [text, in Spanish] states they believe Ecuador’s libel laws are in violation of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights [official website], for using criminal law to punish expressions against public officials. Correa has another suit pending against journalists Juan Carlos Calderon and Christian Zurita for their book Big Brother [Amazon profile], which claimed that Correa’s brother had awarded millions of dollars of government contracts to businesses for his own profit. Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] criticized Correa rallying against journalists earlier this year and pleaded with him to not prosecute journalists [report text].