Ecuador's National Court of Justice agreed with a lower court's ruling to convict four Ecuadorian journalists from El Universo of libel over a February 2011 column about Ecuador's president Rafael Correa, the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote Feb. 16.
As we have previously written, Correa filed the suit against El Universo journalist Emilio Palacio, who wrote the column "No to Lies," and the three owners of the newspaper. The column called Correa a dictator, among other things. In July 2011, the four journalists were sentenced to three years in prison and a total fine of $40 million. Late last month, the appeal for that ruling, heard by the National Court of Justice, was "suspended" until this month. El Universo had claimed that the original ruling was "written by Correa's own lawyer," according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. El Pais published a timeline of the case here.
Agence France Presse noted that Correa "stressed" that he would have ended his lawsuit if El Universo would "rectify the tremendous lie, the tremendous injury, apologized to the Ecuadorian people." As we wrote earlier this month, El Universo said it wouldn't apologize unless the government stopped suing journalists.
The Committee to Protect Journalists's Carlos Lauria called the ruling "disappointing and dangerous." The CPJ noted that the Feb. 16 "ruling exhausts El Universo's legal appeals in Ecuador." However, the case is being looked at by "the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States."
Reporters without Borders called the ruling "a devastating setback for freedom of expression." In a statement on its website, the press advocacy group said:
"Although Rafael Correa brought a case as a private individual and not as head of state, it is difficult not to see such an excessive penalty as a return to ‘lèse-majesté’, which does not tally with the principles of the rule of law, which require a democratically elected government to accept criticism, however scathing and unjust."
Previously we've written about lèse-majesté laws in Thailand, which prohibit "defaming" or "insulting" the royal family.
The Associated Press reported Feb. 16 that Correa said "he was considering a pardon" of the ruling against El Universo. The AP noted that "El Universo’s director was reported to have taken asylum in the Panamanian Embassy on Thursday. The other three defendants had previously left the country."
Meanwhile, in another case involved Correa and the press, the Wall Street Journal reported Feb. 7 that journalists Juan Carlos Calderon and Christian Zurita must pay Correa "$1 million each and an additional $100,000 for legal costs" over their book The Big Brother. According to the Ecuador Times, the book "revealed the contracts" Correa's brother had with the government. The contracts were worth $600 million, according to the AP.
The Associated Press added that the judge, Mercedes Portilla, said the book "offended Correa's 'honor, dignity, good name (and) professional prestige within the country and abroad.'" After the contracts were exposed by the authors of the book in a 2009 newspaper article, Correa "canceled all the contracts" and said he didn't know about them previously, the AP explained.
UPDATE: 2/21/2012 6:35 PM EST: Added information about the Big Brother.