29 February 2012

Correa's pardon won't change alarming free expression situation, say IFEX members

Amid mounting international condemnation, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said he would pardon a former editor and three owners of "El Universo", who were fined US$40 million and sentenced to three years in prison in a libel case, report the Andean Foundation for Media Observation & Study (Fundamedios).

During a ceremony at the government palace in Quito that was televised nationally, Correa announced his decision to "pardon the accused, granting them remission of their sentences that they deservedly received."

He also said he would drop a case against two other journalists who had written a book exposing government contracts given to the President's brother.

Declaring victory over what he called a "media dictatorship," Correa said, "There is forgiveness, but it is not forgotten."

Correa has been engaged in a running battle with the media since he took office in 2007. IFEX members say he has created a climate of intimidation to stifle free speech and silence critics. Correa says he is fighting an entrenched media establishment biased in favour of the wealthy interests that own and control media companies.

According to news reports, Emilio Palacio, the "El Universo" editor sentenced in the case, said that pressure from other governments and human rights and press freedom groups had forced Correa to grant the pardon. He had fled to Miami to avoid imprisonment.

While IFEX members welcomed the gesture, some remained concerned for the precariousness of Ecuador's free expression situation.

Fundamedios felt the tone and content of the announcement did "not encourage a feeling of optimism."

"They do not lead us to believe… that the Ecuadorian government will reverse its policy of constant and systematic harassment against journalists and the private and independent media," Fundamedios said.

Index on Censorship said the impact of the case on press freedom was "irreversible," adding, "The accusations left an indelible mark on anyone's desire to challenge President Correa on his presidential duties."

The presidential pardon only applies to the sentences, and not the legal edict issued by the National Court of Justice, which remains on the books as a legal precedent. This factor, says the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), could lead to future actions against the press.

"What the Ecuadorean people cannot lose sight of is that there will continue the precedent of a president coercing his country's press with legal threats," said IAPA."Press freedom is an inherent human right and it does not exist simply because a president might want to grant it as a special favour."

The "EL Universo" column at the centre of the controversy repeatedly referred to Correa as "the Dictator" and said he ordered troops to fire "without warning on a hospital full of civilians and innocent people" during a September 2010 police revolt over government plans to cut police benefits.

Lawyers for "El Universo" said they were waiting for the appropriate papers to be filed for the pardon in order to review it and respond.

In the meantime, a group of Correa supporters, known as correistas.com, with the support of some pubic officials, has initiated a campaign called "No more attacks against Ecuador" in opposition to the media and organisations nationally and worldwide that condemned the "El Universo" conviction.

The group hopes to get 20,000 supporters to endorse a letter addressed to those groups as well as "all those organisations and think tanks that, either through disinformation or deliberate political action, aim to affect the process of social development with freedom and dignity enjoyed in our Ecuador today."

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