Panama offers asylum to Ecuadoran newspaper owner facing prison, fines in libel sentence that has prompted global outrage

The president of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, offered asylum to Ecuadoran journalist Carlos Pérez Barriga, one of the owners of the El Universo newspaper who, along with his two brothers, was just sentenced to three years in prison and $40 million in fines for defaming Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, according to the non-governmental organization Fundamedios. Martinelli made the announcement via his Twitter account on Thursday, Feb. 16.

Pérez's brothers, César and Nicolás, who are also owners of the newspaper El Universo, are currently in the United States and fear returning to Ecuador, according to the Peruvian newspaper La República. Emilio Palacio, the journalist who initially wrote the editorial column that provoked Correa to file a complaint for alleged libel against El Universo, is also in the United States where he has asked for asylum.

In light of Correa's inconceivable libel victory against the newspaper El Universo, the tragic news has been criticized and rejected on a global scale by multiple organizations that defend freedom of expression. The verdict “represents a serious blow to freedom of expression and a setback for democracy,” the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said. Reporters Without Borders classified it as “a devastating setback for freedom of expression” and the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) as a “serious attack on freedom of the press.”

Meanwhile, in Ecuador, hundreds of people marched to ask for freedom of expression and to demonstrate their rejection to the conviction against El Universo, the same newspaper reported. On their march toward Ecuador's high court, employees and journalists of El Universo dressed in mourning and covered their mouths with cloths to represent gags, the newspaper El Comercio reported.