Correa pardon does not lessen chill on Ecuador’s free press

When Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa issued Monday a presidential pardon and forgave a multi-million dollar fine and prison terms for a former editorial writer and three owners of the Ecuadorean daily, El Universo,  the impact of the case on press freedom was already irreversible.  The accusations left an indelible mark on anyone’s desire to challenge  President Correa on his presidential duties.

The presidential pardon also benefitted two book authors who had been accused by Correa in a civil libel case that sought $1 million dollars in damages,  charging the writers with defamation for an investigation on alleged suspicions that President Correa’s brother engaged in corrupt practices linked to government-issued contracts.  Both the book authors, Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita, and El Universo publishers and editor, were dragged through the Ecuadorian legal system for months, facing a formidable government campaign.

Correa’s announcement came as Ecuador had to show up  at a special hearing before the Organization of American States legal body, The Inter American Human Rights Court.  In early February the Court issued a request asking Correa to stop the sentence against the daily and the other journalists.

El Universo replied that it had to review the presidential pardon to respond accordingly. The presidential pardon only erased the sentences from the record but not the legal edict issued by the National Justice Court, which remains on the books as a legal precedent. This factor, according to several international  press freedom organisations, could lead to future actions against the press.

As it is often the case in causes célèbres, public opinion forgot the content of the editorial that unleashed the Ecuadorean President’s unhappiness. In it, the editorial director, Emilio Palacio, wrote that Correa´s decision to have government forces fire against a civilian hospital during a police uprising in 2010 could lead to future accusations of crimes of less humanity.

El Universo is an 89-year-old daily that was known for its centrist positions.  Its long-time publisher died in 2002 and three of his sons, Oscar, Nicolas and Cesar Perez took over the leadership of the daily.  Emilio Palacios, who worked at the daily remained  in charge of the editorial page.  Emilio Palacio is the brother of former Ecuadoran President Alfredo Palacio, who was in office from 2005 to 2007.  Correa was Alfredo Palacio´s Minister of Finance, but he resigned after a year, because of disagreements over the economic policies of Palacios.