Three executives and a former columnist for the newspaper ‘El Universo’ have been sentenced to three years in prison and US$42mn in damages.
The judgment, dating back to a libel decision in 2011, ratifies two previous decisions against the country’s leading opposition newspaper.
In March 2011, President Rafael Correa brought criminal libel charges against Emilio Palacio, a former columnist for ‘El Universal’, in reference to an article referring to the president as “the dictator”. The article also stated that Correa “ordered discretionary fire—without prior notification—against a hospital full of civilians and innocent people” during a police revolt in 2010.
The final decision, which is not subject to further appeal in the Ecuadorian courts, came after more than 13 hours of deliberation. The judges’ panel from the National Court of Justice asked the parties if they had agreed to a resolution, but while the defendants said they were open to settling out of court, President Correa maintained his stance against the paper.
“In the face of such dirty tricks, at this point in time an apology cannot be accepted,” Correa said.
Throughout the case, ‘El Universo’ has received the support of international press freedom and human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
The attorney for ‘El Universo’, Monica Vargas, stated that the sentence “in no way closes the case.” A preliminary injunction has been sought with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous panel in Washington, D.C. that would suspend Ecuador’s verdict pending a full review.
“People should be under no illusions about what the impact of this case will be,” said Carlos Perez, director of ‘El Universo’. “It already has had a chilling effect on what Ecuadorians can say and report.”