Miami (February 8, 2012)—The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) today described as “disproportionate” and “a hard blow to investigative reporting” and “accountability journalism” a court ruling in Ecuador that sentenced two journalists to pay $2 million to President Rafael Correa in damages on a charge of defamation.
Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita, co-authors of the book “El gran hermano” (Big Brother), were yesterday today to pay $1 million each in indemnity to President of Ecuador for injuring his reputation. He had filed suit in February 2011 – not as President but as an individual - over the contents of the book against the two journalists, who had written about the signing of questionable and privileged contracts between the government of Ecuador and the president’s older brother, Fabricio Correa.
On repeated occasions, including in front of an IAPA international delegation that traveled to Quito last year, the two reporters rejected the accusation that they had lied in their book. They said it was Fabricio Correa himself who had provided the information to them.
IAPA President Milton Coleman declared, “The gravity of this disproportionate sentence for the alleged harm caused lies in the fact that it will inhibit other journalists from conducting investigations, and holding public official to account, create self-censorship and discourage media from carrying out their journalistic role – all aspects that are fundamental elements in a democracy.”
Coleman, senior editor of The Washington Post, Washington, DC, added that the court ruling goes against inter-American principles of freedom of expression. Among these Coleman mentioned the “proportionality of a damages award, the need for public officials to be more exposed to criticism” and especially that this sentence “ignored the criterion of real malice or proof that the defendant had the express intent to cause harm.”
The IAPA mentioned in addition that in a case before the Inter-American Human Rights Court on November 29, 2011, the “Fontevecchia and D’Amico v. Argentina Case,” it was argued that the civil measures of ulterior responsibility can also amount to indirect censorship with characteristics of a greater chilling effect than criminal responsibilities.
Regarding the disproportionate size of the damages award the IAPA recalled the 2000 joint declaration by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression.
The declaration established the following: “Civil sanctions for defamation should not be so large as to exert a chilling effect on freedom of expression and should be designed to restore the reputation harmed, not to compensate the plaintiff or to punish the defendant; in particular, pecuniary awards should be strictly proportionate to the actual harm caused and the law should prioritize the use of a range of non-pecuniary remedies.”
In this regard the IAPA gave as an example a growing trend in the Americas concerning the amount of damages awarded. In the recent adoption of making defamation no longer a criminal offense in El Salvador the Congress there set ceilings for damage awards, so as to prevent excessive such awards that could bring about the bankruptcy or shutdown of news media.
The ruling against reporters Calderón and Zurita was issued by Pichincha Fifth Criminal Court Judge María Mercedes Portilla. President Correa’s original suit sought $10 million in damages.
Correa, among other lawsuits taken out against the press, has pending another case against the executives of the newspaper El Universo and a former opinion page editor, in which the defendants have already been sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay him $40 million in damages. The sentence is being appealed.
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.