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Ecuador: Citizens React to Verdict Against Newspaper El Universo

On Thursday, February 16, the highest Ecuadorian court upheld a verdict in favour of President Rafael Correa in a libel case against newspaper El Universo, one of the major dailies in this South American country.

It's been less than a year since President Correa sued the newspaper, it's directors and the editor for slander against him for an opinion column [es] written by Emilio Palacio. The column refers to the alleged directive of the president to fire shots at civilians during a revolt on the September 30, 2011. Palacio [es], author of the column and former editor, is now seeking asylum in the United States; while journalist and former director Carlos Pérez is currently exiled in the Embassy of Panama in Quito [es] after the news broke and the sentence against the newspaper was confirmed.

Correa's lawsuit is the first action taken by the highest court of justice in Ecuador, the new National Court of Justice, which was initiated just three weeks ago. The sentence against El Universo demands $40 million U.S. dollars in damages and 3 years in prison for each offender. Ruptura [es], a political news source in Ecuador, compares the economic value of the sentence:

cuarenta millones equivalen a 40 veces el caso más importante de desaparición y crimen de Estado, como es el caso Restrepo; o son el equivalente de 600 años de sueldo presidencial.

40 million equates to 40 times the cost of the most important cases of disappearances or crimes against the state, as in the Restrepo case; or it's the equivalent to 600 years of a presidential salary.

President Rafael Correa and Carlos Pérez, ex-director of El Universo –Photo reproduced under authorisation of the newspaper El Comercio, Quito – Ecuador

Lawyer and blogger Silvana Tapia, who writes in the blog Lunas Azules [es] (Blue Moons), analysed the legal proceedings from which the sentence was arrived. Silvana believes that, “the law must correct concrete actions, not repercussions much less the characters of persons”, and outlines:

Del universo de conflictos que pueden aparecer en la vida de una persona, una mínima parte debería resolverse mediante la aplicación de la ley penal: conductas que vulneran bienes jurídicos esenciales como la vida y la integridad física y sexual. Por supuesto que el buen nombre y el honor son atributos de la personalidad, pero es el derecho civil, que se ocupa de los perjuicios que pueden causarse unos particulares a otros, el que está llamado a restablecer el equilibrio cuando se presentan polémicas como la generada por un artículo de opinión que utilizó con descuido e incuria, los adjetivos y los epítetos.

In the universe of conflicts that can occur in the life of a person, a minimal part should be resolved with the application of the legal system: conducts that threaten essential judicial privileges like life, personal and sexual integrity. Of course, a good reputation and honour are personal attributes, but this pertains to civil law, which handles prejudices directed at others, and is called upon to re-establish equilibrium when controversies arise due to opinion articles in which certain adjectives and epithets are used indiscriminately and in negligence.

Despite efforts by organisations like the Human Rights Foundation and Human Rights Watch to eliminate the penalty for defamation in Ecuador [es], the National Court of Justice declared it would follow through with its decision. However, the Ecuadorian population remains unsure on whether this is a good judgement or a bad one, brought forward by the criticism and haste [es] with which the final decision was taken.

Manuel Ignacio López in the blog Today and now [es] believes, just as Fernando Balda [es], that Correa's government has a team of followers lined up in an organised system on social networks which allows results like the one from last Thursday in the National Court of Justice. But López points a finger at those who defend Correa's actions as agents of the government:

…Unos repiten su discurso de los sábados. Otros escriben cartas a los diarios y organizaciones diciendo que aquí no pasa nada. Otros lo acompañan a las audiencias, avalando el abuso con su presencia. Otros, que incluso fueron periodistas o editorialistas, prefieren ser cómplices con su silencio. No quieren perder sus privilegios. A ellos se suman periodistas de medios del Gobierno que defienden estos abusos que antes hubiesen rechazado a toda voz. Cambian su defensa de la libertad de expresión por la defensa de sus puestos.

Some repeat Saturdays’ drivel. Others write letters to newspapers and organisations saying that nothing is going on here. Others, accompanied by audiences, swallow the abuse with their presence. Others, including journalists or editors, prefer to be accomplices with their silence. They don't want to lose their privileges. They are all a bunch of agents of the government who defend this abuse that they themselves rejected with all their might in the past. They would trade their freedom of expression to keep their posts.

While the Ecuadorian Association of Editors and Journalists (Aedep), the National Journalists Union (UNP), and Fundamedios (Andes Foundation for the Observation and Study of Media Arts) question the sentence [es] some Ecuadorean Twitter users [es], like Economics and Finance student Sebastián Lucero (@gamuzeins) [es], disagree:

Ser periodista no da carta libre para injuriar y lanzar epítetos sin fundamentos. La falta de ética y profesionalismo se paga.

Being a journalist doesn't give anyone the right to insult and throw names without due cause. Serves them right for their lack of professionalism.

On the other hand, lawyer and Twitter user Pablo Garzón (@pgarzon) published a series of tweets on the day of the sentence:

@pgarzon [es]: En tu casa, con tus amigos, déjales saber que lo de El Universo no fue un juicio justo, se violaron normas y procedimientos elementales.

In your house with your friends, let it be known that the El Universo judgment was unfair, norms and basic rules were violated.

@pgarzon [es]: Si no leías El Universo, si te cae mal Emilio Palacio, no importa. Ahora podrán cometer el mismo atropello a cualquier diario, entiéndelo!

If you didn't read El Universo, if you don't like Emilio Palacio, it doesn't matter. Now, it can happen to any newspaper. Get that into your head!

Other Twitter users used #ElUniverso [es] and #LibertadDeExprexión [es] (“Freedom of speech”) when referring to the sentence. Byron Mayorga (@bmayorga) [es], editor general of the tech blog Bitscloud [es], wrote:

El tema #ElUniverso debió haberse resuelto bajo otras instancias: mediación, arbitraje.

The El Universo matter ought to have been dealt with in a different manner: mediation, arbitration.

To which Ivan Danilo (@monoarre) [es] responded:

@bmayorga Mediación cuando ambas partes quieren negociar, aqui no hubo tal.

Mediation is when both parties want to negotiate, here, there was no such thing.

At the root of the release of the news of this sentence, the comments in an article [es] in newspaper El Comercio have hinted at a national march being organised for the March 8 in rejection of the court's ruling. The management and staff of El Universo organised their own protest in Quito and Guayaquil [es]. On Twitter, journalists Roberto Villavicencio (@robvillavicencio) and Gabriela Fajardo (@GabyFajardo) (1, 2, 3) shared photos of the two hour protest in Quito during the night of February 16.

But not all Ecuadorians support these protests. From Guayaquil, Josue Castillo (@Azulito0) [es] writes:

Se los ve bonitos a los payasos que trabajan en el#Universo en lugar de trabajar están parados como todas las cosas.

The clowns that work at El Universo look good instead of working they're just standing, just like everything else.

From Quito, Victor Constante (@viconst) [es] says that the protests show that there is freedom of expression in the country:

Estos plantones confirman que en Ecuador sí hay libertad de expresión. Celebro la condena a los difamadores de EL Universo!

These protests confirm that in Ecuador there is freedom of expression. I celebrate the condemnation of defamation at El Universo.

This conversation around freedom of expression in this Andean country will continue to be a heated topic of discussion in the upcoming days. However, Nila Velásquez, the new director of El Universo, has said that there will be no significant changes [es] at the newspaper.

Parts of this post are based on a post published of February 17 on Silvia Viñas’ personal blog.

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