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JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

Ecuadoran President Correa celebrates $40 million libel victory against newspaper El Universo




"This demonstrates that you can prosecute not only the clowns, but also the owner of the circus," said Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa as he celebrated the high court's ruling upholding the defamation sentence against the owners of the newspaper El Universo, the same newspaper reported Thursday, Feb. 16.

The Ecuadoran court's ruling represents the end of the line, as the newspaper has exhausted its resources appealing the sentence against the daily, the largest in Ecuador. The court's decision upheld the sentence of three years in prison and a $30 million fine against former newspaper columnist Emilio Palacio, who has sought asylum in the United States, and the owners of the newspaper, brothers Carlos, César and Nicolás Pérez. What's more, the newspaper itself is being fined another $10 million, according to the Associated Press.

The controversial legal process began in March 2011, when President Correa filed a libel lawsuit after El Universo published a column by Palacio criticizing the president during the police uprising of Sept. 30, 2010.

Before the ruling against the newspaper was issued on Wednesday, Feb. 15, one of the judges asked the parties involved if they wanted to attempt a resolution before the final decision was made, but President Correa was emphatic in his refusal, reported the newspaper El Comercio. Now the defendants have three working days to request clarifications or explanations of the ruling in order to avoid immediate execution of the sentence, explained the newspaper's lawyer, Joffre Campaña, to the organization Reporters Without Borders.

During the hearing, which lasted more than 13 hours in the Ecuadoran capital of Quito, the brothers César and Nicolás Pérez participated in a press conference in Miami at the headquarters of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), during which they said they feared for their physical safety and planned to seek foreign legal protections, IAPA said. An intervention by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is the only real hope for the newspaper owners, which already have sought precautionary measures to stop implementation of their prison sentences or payment of the fines, which would cause the newspaper to go bankrupt, explained the Spanish newspaper ABC.

"This shortsighted ruling will only keep Ecuadoran journalists from investigating powerful politicians; it represents a serious setback for democracy in Ecuador," said Senior Americas Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría of the Committee to Protect Journalists in a statement.

Correa appeared victorious after the ruling. "This is going to change history, because they're going to understand that freedom is for everyone, and not just for those with money to buy a printing press," Correa said in a press conference, according to the news agency AFP.



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