The government sued a newspaper over a column that speculated about the president’s powers and asked for a multimillion dollar fine.
What happened to the Ecuadorian newspaper El Universo shouts out about how far Latin Americans still have to move forward regarding freedom of expression.
In 2010, President Rafael Correa sued a now-former columnist and three of the paper’s directors under the country’s criminal libel statute because of the column. He demanded prison sentences and a $42 million fine, and he won. Then the president forgave them.
In the United States, a similar case is unthinkable, but in many countries harassment of news media by public officials is common.
I had the opportunity to hear one of the newspaper’s directors talk about the case Tuesday at a conference, “The Inter American System and Freedom of Expression.”
The conference was organized by the Inter American Press Association and sponsored by, among others, the Scripps Howard Foundation. Most of those attending the conference at American Universitiy’s Washington College of Law were journalism and law students from South and Central America.
César Pérez, publisher of El Universo was one of the speakers. He detailed the lawsuit and said whoever doesn’t follow the government’s playbook faces lawsuits and prosecution. Correa, he said, has expanded the federal government’s power to control the news media since his election in 2008 through laws and public referendums.
It’s not hard to imagine that conditions in newsrooms there must not be the best, but I was surprised to hear how poorly journalism professionals are treated. One Ecuadorian journalism student told me reporters at some radio stations are paid with advertisers’ products – including beer and circus tickets.
Juan Méndez, United Nations special rapporteur on torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, said a democratic society has to be thoroughly informed, and the only way to have that is to insist that governments have formal obligations to display information.
Kate Doyle, senior analyst at the National Security Archive office in New York, said citizens in these countries began to see transparency and human rights as a need in the 1980s after the military dictatorships supported by the U.S. ended.
But many Latin America countries, such as Brazil, have yet to ensure transparency as a governmental obligation. In 2010, the case of Gomes Lund v. Brazil, was the first international court decision to force the government to open its archives.
Lund, a student and a guerrilla movement member, was killed in 1972 during the dictatorship. His family, and others, finally got the files about their relatives. But others cannot. The amnesty law approved at the end of the regime in 1985 prevented people who tortured and killed civilians from being prosecuted.
These examples of government prosecution of the press and lawmakers effort to keep information from the public make clear that Latin America still has a long way to ensure freedom of expression.