The 60-day prison sentence passed by the high court of the central province of Cotopaxi on Nelson Fueltala, the correspondent of the La Gaceta daily newspaper and Radio Latacunga, for insulting the mayor of Pujilí was disproportionate and liable to encourage self-censorship, Reporters Without Borders said today.
“This court’s ruling is both grossly unjust and dangerous,” the press freedom organisation said. “It is unjust because prison sentences should never be passed in this kind of case. It is dangerous because it poses a threat to free expression for the Ecuadorean press and, as a result, fosters self-censorship. We hope the supreme court will overturn this decision and, in the process, establish a legal precedent.”
A report Fueltala wrote for the 2 June 2006 issue of La Gaceta quoted comments by then municipal commissioner Ricardo Estrella criticising Pujilí mayor Marcelo Arroyo Ruiz. The mayor brought a complaint before a local court, which acquitted Fueltala.
His acquittal was overturned on 6 March by the high court, which ordered Fueltala to pay 70 dollars in damages and sentenced him to 60 days in prison. The ruling has triggered an outcry in the Ecuadorean media. The municipal commission called it “a violation of human rights in a democratic country.”
Fueltala’s lawyer, Luis Carrillo, immediately appealed to the supreme court in Quito, which agreed on 13 March to consider the case although it has not yet set a date. Fueltala does not have to begin serving the sentence as long as the appeal is pending.
Journalists demonstrated in support of press freedom outside the town hall on 28 March. They were joined by police, and together they continued the protest outside the Cotopaxi provincial high court building.