Miami (December 23, 2011)—The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) today expressed concern at a court ruling in Ecuador in which the editor of the newspaper Hoy was sentenced to three months in prison, saying it “underscores the constant deterioration that press freedom is suffering” in the South American country.
The editor, Jaime Mantilla Anderson, was not only sentenced to imprisonment but also to pay a fine of $25.00 in a libel suit brought in 2010 by Pedro Delgado, current chairman of the board of directors of the Ecuador Central Bank and a cousin of President Rafael Correa. The sentence was handed down on Wednesday (December 21) by Pichincha Criminal Court Judge Leonardo Tipán Valencia.
Delgado filed the lawsuit after a series of reports published in 2009 in the newspaper’s “Blanco y Negro” (Black and White) supplement which he considered to be defamatory, at a time when he was serving as board chairman of the AGD-CFN trust fund, a state body, charged with the shutdown of 11 financial entities. The suit also called on Mantilla to name the reporters involved and their sources, which he persistently refused to do, citing constitutional guarantees protecting professional secrecy.
IAPA Chairman Milton Coleman declared, “We fear that this ruling which favors a relative of the president and that punishes a newspaper owner does not appear to be an isolated incident, but rather part of a strategy that seeks to punish and create a chilling effect on the media’s role as investigators and watchdogs, always giving as an excuse the right of officials to have their personal honor and reputation respected.”
Coleman thus referred to other cases brought about by those in power, such as President Rafael Correa, against the executives and a columnist of the newspaper El Universo and, among others, the authors of the book “El Gran Hermano” (Big Brother), in which corruption between the government and the president’s brother Fabricio is mentioned.
He added, “Apart from the right of the people to resort to the justice system what concerns us is that journalists are still being sentenced to imprisonment, especially in lawsuits that involve public officials, who should be more open to criticism and public scrutiny.”
“Once again,” added Coleman, senior editor of The Washington Post, Washington, DC, “this sentence requires us to step up our efforts to make the legislators and government of Ecuador understand the need to make defamation no longer a criminal offense as it contrary to freedom of the press, as inter-American doctrine specifies.”
The Organization of American States’ Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression establishes that “…The protection of a person’s reputation should only be guaranteed through civil sanctions in those cases in which the person offended is a public official, a public person or a private person who has voluntarily become involved in matters of public interest.”
Mantilla, vice president of the IAPA, announced that he will appeal the sentence on the grounds that it contains anomalies, among them that the judge who ruled against him had withdrawn from the trial the day before. If the sentence is upheld Mantilla will be jailed at the Male Provisional Detention Center in the city of Pichincha.
Gustavo Mohme, chairman of the IAPA’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, recalled that in Ecuador public officials, including President Correa, have filed libel suits against numerous journalists and writers in recent years following their reports and accusations of wrongdoing in the civil service.
Mohme, editor of the Lima, Peru, newspaper La República, added, “We are watching very closely this case, which we believe legal proceedings are being manipulated to muzzle press freedom in Ecuador.”
Delgado’s libel suit includes several reports published in the Blanco y Negro supplement, among them those titled “La buena espalda del primo del presidente” (The President’s Cousin’s Good Backing”) and “Delgado a juicio por un memo” (Delgado On Trial for a Memo), in which wrongdoing and privileges in the management and reach of the AGD-CFN trust fund’s board of directors are alleged. Delgado claims that what was involved was “to misinform public opinion, damage my image … with the sole intent and desire to do me harm … and damage my reputation, my credit, my interests.”
The IAPA is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the defense and promotion of freedom of the press and of expression in the Americas. It is made up of more than 1,300 print publications from throughout the Western Hemisphere and is based in Miami, Florida. For more information please go to http://www.sipiapa.org.