$40 million sentence against Ecuadorian newspaper upheld in court

With two votes in favor and one abstention, a court in Ecuador upheld a sentence of three years in prison and $40 million in damages against an ex-columnist and three directors of the newspaper El Universo, the newspaper reported on Tuesday, Sept. 20. The ruling could bankrupt the newspaper, one of Ecuador's largest and oldest dailies, the Miami Herald said.

The decision was issued Jul. 20 after President Rafael Correa accused the ex-columnist Emilio Palacio, who fled to Miami, the brothers Carlos and César Pérez Barriga, and Nicolás Pérez Lapentti, editors of the Ecuadorian newspaper, of publishing an editorial critical of the president.

"They upheld the sentence! We won!" President Correa tweeted from the Second Criminal Court of Guayas.

El Universo's lawyer announced in its appeal that if the newspaper were forced to pay the full amount of the damages it would face bankruptcy, reported El Espectador.

"A prison sentence will not end our freedom of information," read the front page of El Universo's Sept. 21 edition.

A day before the hearing, El Universo's publisher, Carlos Pérez, wrote a letter to Dean Nicholas Lemann of the Columbia University School of Journalism asking him to question President Correa about the matter when he visits the institution to give a lecture on media and democracy on Friday, Sept. 23.

"Please be aware that Mr. Correa is not a friend of free press, freedom of expression and individual freedom. I urge you to inquire president Correa on this matter," the letter read.

The ruling sparked a Twitter hashtag, #juicioaElUniverso, condemning the court's decision.

“The imposition of prison sentences and payments of multi-million-dollar fines clearly shows that what we have here is a disproportionate and derisive ruling that seeks to censor or at least impose self-censorship on all independent journalists and news media,” criticized the Inter-American Press Association in a press release.

For more on this story, see this video taken by El Universo where President Correa announces the ratification of the sentence in a press conference with the reactions of the defendants.