Freedom of Expression

Press Release R40-10


Nº R40/10




Washington, D.C., March 31, 2010 - The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its deep concern over the three-year prison sentence issued against journalist Emilio Palacio, an editorial writer for the daily El Universo in the city of Guayaquil, Ecuador. The Office of the Special Rapporteur urges State authorities to apply the IACHR standards on freedom of expression, particularly in terms of not using criminal law to penalize expressions that criticize actions by the authorities in matters of public interest.


According to information that has been received, a legal action was brought against Palacio for crimes against honor by the president of the National Financial Corporation (CFN), a State-run financial institution. The official filed the legal action over an opinion piece signed by Palacio and published in the daily El Universo on August 27, 2009. The piece characterized the official as a "thug", harshly questioned the government’s administration and attributed different kinds of abuses to government officials, including the plaintiff.


On March 26, 2010, Palacio was convicted and sentenced by the Second Criminal Court of Guayas to a prison term of three years to be carried out in the Centro de Rehabilitación Social de Varones de Guayaquil (Center for the Social Reahabilitation of Males of Guayaquil),  and ordered to pay a fine of US$10,000 for legal costs. The court found that the journalist had committed two crimes against honor: libelous insults and grave non-libelous insults, both against a public official. Article 493 of Ecuador’s criminal code establishes higher sanctions for these crimes when the offense is directed "at authority". Palacio was sentenced to the harshest penalty established in that provision. The journalist's defense counsel announced the filing of a motion for clarification and extension with the same court, which suspended the execution of the decision. If that motion is rejected, his defense will appeal to higher courts.           


The Office of the Special Rapporteur believes that this judicial decision represents a serious setback in the regional process advanced by several States which have reformed their legal frameworks with the goal of not using the criminal law to sanction those who investigate or issue personal opinions about public officials, even if they are offensive, disturbing of unfounded. In this regard, the Office of the Rapporteur recalls that Principle 11 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression establishes that "public officials are subject to greater scrutiny by society" and that, according to Principle 10 of the Declaration of Principles, "the protection of a person’s reputation should only be guaranteed through civil sanctions in those cases in which the person offended is a public official, a public person or a private person who has voluntarily become involved in matters of public interest." Furthermore, the Office of the Special Rapporteur recalls that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has established in the Case of Kimel that an opinion about the actions of a public official, inasmuch as it is a value judgment, cannot be subject to sanctions, however offensive, shocking, or disturbing that opinion may be.  


The Office of the Special Rapporteur welcomes Ecuador's draft Organic Code of Criminal Procedure, a legal text that would eliminate several of the crimes for which Palacio was convicted. The draft legislation would take into account the standards of minimum intervention of criminal law in matters related to the expression of information, ideas, and opinions, and would constitute an important guarantee for ensuring the existence of a free, pluralistic, open, and uninhibited debate on public matters. The Office of the Special Rapporteur invites the State to move forward with that legal reform, which would constitute an advance in the region on the path toward promoting judicial systems that stimulate and do not inhibit public debate.


The Office of the Special Rapporteur reiterates its deep concern over Palacio's conviction and urges the authorities of the State of Ecuador to take into account, in accordance with its own National Constitution, the international standards on freedom of expression that derive from Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights.