News24

Journalists ordered to pay president $2m

2012-02-08 09:57

Quito - An Ecuadoran court has ordered two journalists to pay President Rafael Correa $2m in damages in the latest high-profile court case testing freedom of expression in the South American nation.

Journalists Juan Carlos Calderon and Christian Zurita were ordered to pay the president $1m each by a criminal court in the province of Pichincha for his "pain and suffering", defence lawyer Ramiro Aguilar said on Tuesday.

The two journalists wrote the book El Gran Hermano (Big Brother), which describes contracts the state awarded the president's brother, Fabricio Correa, worth a total of $167m.

Correa denies he knew of these deals ahead of time and said he moved to stop the contracts once he learned of them. The president sued, seeking $10m, in his latest offensive against what he calls a "corrupt" news media.

Calderon, who was with his lawyer examining the decision, said he would appeal the ruling calling for each of the journalists to pay $1m, and the awarding of $100 000 in legal costs.

He called the damage award "disproportionate, absurd and irrational" and claimed the lawsuit was an effort "to punish the work of journalists".

Stifling press freedom

The president's lawyer, Gutemberg Vera, said however the lawsuit was based on a work "intended to damage the reputation" of Correa and added that "given the bad faith... it is impossible to reach a reconciliation".

But Correa reaffirmed that if the journalists were to admit they "lied", he would drop the proceedings. "They are being tried for being liars, not for being journalists," he said.

This is the second prominent case involving the president in Ecuador, which has passed new laws that critics say stifle freedom of the press.

Correa sued the newspaper El Universo in March 2011 alleging "defamatory libel" over a column by former opinion page editor Emilio Palacio that accused the president of crimes against humanity.

A lower court judge ruled against the newspaper in July, handing down the $40m judgment and prison sentences against the newspaper's publisher, Carlos Perez, deputy directors Cesar Perez and Nicolas Perez, and Palacio, who fled to Miami. An appeals court upheld the sentence in September. The case is pending in the Supreme Court.