The International Press Institute (IPI) today strongly condemned the sentencing of Ecuadorean journalist Yaco Martínez to one month in prison for defaming a former governor.

Martínez, executive director of the newspaper La Nación in Ecuador’s northern Carchi province and a correspondent for El Universo, was also ordered by a Carchi Penal Court judge, Bayardo García, to pay a fine of $30,000.

According to reports, the case was brought by María Helena Villarreal, then-governor of Carchi, in response to an article Martínez published on Sept. 2, 2012 in La Nación.  The article alleged that a former mayor who had been declared persona non grata by the state’s legislature following demonstrations over a gas distribution plan was being paid to run Carchi’s affairs while Villareal was on vacation. Villareal stepped down on Sep. 27 under pressure from Interior Ministry officials in connection with the gas protests, reports said.

“IPI condemns the conviction of Yaco Martínez on criminal insult charges, and urges that the sentence be swiftly overturned on appeal,” IPI Deputy Director Anthony Mills said today. “This case perfectly illustrates the danger of criminal defamation laws: namely, that public officials may abuse them to punish critical journalism that has cast them in a negative light.”

Mills added: “This verdict sends a clear signal that investigative reporting is not welcome in Carchi, which only harms the province’s citizens, who have a right to information about those who govern in their name.”

IPI has consistently stated that defamation and insult cases should be handled only by civil courts, an opinion supported by growing international consensus. Nevertheless, Ecuador has witnessed several high-profile criminal defamation cases in recent times, including the sentencing of the owners of El Universo to three years in prison in 2012.

That decision was criticised by the Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression of the Organisation of American States, which later issued an injunction calling on the Ecuadorean government to imemdiately suspend the prison sentence and accompanying $40 million fine. IPI has since documented Ecuador’s apparent attempts to strip the Special Rapporteurship of its power; a set of Ecuadorean-led proposals that would seriously harm the Rapporteurship’s ability to fulfil its mandate could come to a vote during an OAS Special General Assembly on March 22.