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Lawsuits targeting journalists in Ecuador, and crimes with impunity continue in border regions (Demo)

Shut up or pay!

In September 2011, an appeals court in Ecuador issued a three year prison sentence and indemnification in the amount of US$40 million against a former editor and three directors at the El Universo newspaper, in a defamation case presented by then President Rafael Correa. 

A BBC article at the time compared this amount to those set in other cases in the country. They pointed to other defamation lawsuits, such as the El Gran Hermano (the Big Brother) case, which also involved President Correa and investigative journalists, where an indemnification was set at US$10 million. Another was the case of columnist Fierro Benítez who was sued by former President Cordero for defamation. Benítez was charged with US$1 million and two years in prison. On the other hand, in a case against a bus company for a transit accident where many passengers were killed, the court set indemnification to the families in the amount of US$5,400. 

CPJ research over the years has demonstrated that Ecuador’s outdated criminal defamation provisions have been systematically used to punish critical journalists, especially during the years under Correa’s administration. 

The sentence was confirmed in 2012. Correa pardoned the defendants, but they felt the lawsuit in itself – with all the time, resources and energy dedicated to the defence – was a violation to their rights. They considered the judicial procedures were marked by serious irregularities and that the lawsuit represented a grave attack to freedom of expression in Ecuador. For these reasons, they decided to take the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). 

Commenting on the case, the OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression said in an interview that “criminal law was used to sanction an opinion against a president who is precisely one of the highest public officials and that freedom of expression protects such criticism and opinions.” Moreover, he mentioned that “[i]n a democratic society, desacato or offense against a president for his actions or for the decisions he makes should not be subject to criminal sanctions,” adding that economic sanctions are “absolutely unnecessary and disproportionate.”

This past February, the IACHR decided to take the case to the Inter-American Court on the grounds that Ecuador had not complied with the Commission’s recommendations issued in 2019. Some of these recommendations which included cancelling the sentence against El Universo and its executives, compensating them for damages, and promoting legal reforms within the judicial system, including decriminalizing defamation

On 21 February 2020, freedom of expression defenders, including IFEX-ALC member Fundamedios, celebrated the news that the Inter-American Court has admitted the El Universo case.

The use of criminal procedures and civil lawsuits to silence journalists is a recurrent problem in Latin America and the Inter-American Court’s decision on the case may set an important precedent and send a relevant message to authoritarians in the region – all kinds of censorship will not be accepted.

Another border murder 

On 12 February 2020, journalist Leo Veras was murdered in Pedro Juan Caballero, a Paraguayan city on the other side of the border from Ponta Pora in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Veras was the owner of the news site Pora News, which extensively covered drug trafficking between the two countries. Veras was killed by gunmen while having dinner with his family. 

In 2015, IFEX-ALC member ARTIGO 19 called attention to the challenges faced by journalists operating in the area, saying that “the border between Brazil and Paraguay is a dangerous area for journalism.” In a short documentary produced by the organisation, ARTIGO 19 notes that “the high number of violations faced by media workers in the last years and the lack of resolution of such cases render the professionals there more and more vulnerable in carrying on with their work.” (Check out the full short documentary to learn more about this topic).

According to another IFEX-ALC member in Brazil, Abraji, all evidence points to the fact that Vera was murdered for reasons related to his journalistic work. The organisation will include his case in the Tim Lopes Program –  a special project that seeks to address impunity in cases of violence against media workers by organizing a team of journalists to collectively follow up on the stories that were under development by the attacked journalists. They also jointly follow up on the investigations on the attacks. By doing so, they ensure that the work of their colleagues will continue and their stories will be told despite the attempt to silence and cover them up. They also pressure local authorities, especially in distant areas of Brazil, to diligently investigate the attacks. 

This is a border murder, not unlike the El Comercio case – another well known case followed up by IFEX-ALC members where three media workers were murdered in the frontier between Colombia and Ecuador. Both cases share all the complexities this brings to an investigation on crimes against the press. 

Lessons learned from the joint efforts to investigate the El Comercio case should be taken into consideration, and Paraguay and Brazil should seek coordinated efforts to ensure impunity is not again the final chapter of this border tale

In Brief

Save the Internet!

IFEX members in Mexico – R3D, Articulo 19 Mexico and Cencos – led the campaign Let’s save the Internet! The campaign is mobilizing people in Mexico and abroad to speak up against a bill that may compromise the protection of net neutrality in the country. The groups provide a detailed legal analysis of the bill, demonstrating how it may lead to censorship and decrease legal protection of privacy online. Check out the campaign website for details:

The state of freedom of expression in 2019

A number of our regional members launched their annual reports, looking at the state of freedom of expression in Colombia, Honduras and Venezuela. Want to learn more? Access the full documents below:

The resources above were only available in Spanish at the time of publication.

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