Ecuador’s Corte Constitucional (Constitutional Court) has delivered numerous controversial verdicts in the past six months with regard to freedom of the press and freedom of expression. But in a strange twist of events, on Monday President Rafael Correa pardoned the convicted defendants of two cases in which he was the plaintiff. It is a welcome change, but it is one nonetheless that is too little, too late. In fact, it presents a danger that the pressure from the international human rights community will lessen in Ecuador at this very crucial moment in which the proposed Ley de Comunicación (Communication Law) is being debated.
In late 2011, Ecuador’s highest court ruled on three landmark cases with regard to freedom of expression. First, the court found the opinion editor and two directors the El Universo newspaper guilty of libel, sentencing them to three years in jail and $40 million in damages. The court also found the authors of the book El Gran Hermano, which was critical of Correa, guilty of libel and ordered each to pay a $1 million fine. Finally, Indigenous activist Monica Chuji was found guilty of spreading libel about Minister Vinicio Alvarado in an interview published in the newspaper El Comercio; Chuji was sentenced to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine; Chuji’s appeal is still being considered.
After much international pressure from human rights organizations, such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), President Correa pardoned the convicted defendants in the El Universo and El Gran Hermano cases, effectively archiving the cases and dismissing the penalties. However, because the court already delivered their rulings for these aforementioned two cases, those decisions stand as precedent within the judicial system. Similarly, in his pardon Correa declared that if anyone was to publish similarly libelous material, he would not hesitate to bring suit again.
The strategic timing of these pardons reveals Correa’s true intent. First, the pardon aims to get the international spotlight off the Ecuadorian media and the debate surrounding the proposed Ley de Comunicación. A special commission of legislators presented the newly drafted communication law earlier this month; while it contains some important changes from the draft previously presented by President Correa in July 2009, it still remains ambiguous in key areas—leaving space for abuse by the executive and judicial branches.
Most worrisome is that the communication law still requires that news articles published have verifiability. However, the high courts have shown recently that even opinion articles which are critical of the administration—even while clearly labeled as opinion articles—do not count as “verifiable.” What’s worse is that the communication law does not legislate any protections for stating one’s opinion.
Second, the pardon comes only days after the accusation made by Justice Mónica Encalada that President Correa and his lawyers pressured the justices to rule in his favor in the case of El Universo. Correa may now be doing this to avoid an inquiry over this accusation and blanket any domestic and international media criticism over it.
But the pressure on Correa’s tactics should not lessen as a result of the pardon. Instead, human rights courts such as IACHR and other civil society groups should continue to demand a new drafting of the Ley de Comunicación that eschews a closed-door process. Furthermore, media groups should demand an inquiry by a nongovernmental commission into the accusations of Justice Encalada. While forgiveness of the president may be one thing, to forget the causal actions that led to these decisions would be to put the unalienable right to freedom of expression in more danger than ever.
Lindsay Green-Barber is a guest blogger to AQ Online. She is a graduate teaching fellow at Hunter College and PhD candidate at City University in New York and is in Ecuador doing field research for her doctoral dissertation on information and communication technologies and social movements in developing countries.