Juan Carlos Calderón, Ecuador

$1,000,000 for hurting the president’s feelings

Juan Carlos Calderón is a journalist from Ecuador. In 2011, together with fellow journalist Christian Zurita, he published a book of investigative journalism reporting called El Gran Hermano (the big brother). The book examined state contracts, mostly for road construction, worth US$600 million which had been awarded to Fabricio Correa, the brother of the then-serving president Rafael Correa.

Rafael Correa ruled as president of Ecuador from 2010-2017, and was criticised by a number of press freedom organisations for his repeated attacks on the press.

After the details of the state contracts were made public, Correa cancelled them and said he had been unaware of the arrangements. However, he then devoted three nation-wide presidential broadcasts to discrediting the book and its authors, and filed a US$10 million defamation lawsuit against the journalists for alleging corruption.

Though the facts of the contracts reported were not in dispute, a regional court ruled that the journalists had defamed the president. Calderón and Zurita were both ordered to pay US$1 million each in damages to the president, as well as US$100,000 for his legal fees.

Defamation costs of this magnitude are clearly intended to bankrupt the journalists in question, and create a chilling effect against any future criticism. Media Legal Defence Initiative supported Juan Calderón’s appeal against the charges.

The president Rafael Correa pardoned the journalists in the criminal defamation case and withdrew the civil libel case. However, the wide publicity afforded to the case created a chilling effect by demonstrating that the president would not tolerate criticism.

Juan Carlos Calderón is now the president of Fundamedios, a freedom of expression organisation which supported his case.

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