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Ecuador: President Correa's Tumultuous Relationship With the Media

After last year's police uprising, Ecuadoreans have been eager to find out who was responsible for the events that took place on that September 30, 2010, when the country was thrown into chaos during a police strike to oppose changes to a law which reduced benefits for various public entities.

Ecuadorean courts have decided on the matter, “declaring six police officers guilty of crimes against the security of the state.” A hearing to appeal the resolution [es] is in progress, but the conflict between President Rafael Correa and the Ecuadorian media is far from resolved.

President Correa with a copy of El Universo. Image by Flickr user Presidencia de la República de Ecuador (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

President Correa with a copy of El Universo. Image by Flickr user Presidencia de la República de Ecuador (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Widening breach

The breach between Correa and the press has widened now that Correa has been favored by the Fifteenth Court of Criminal Guarantees of the Guayas province in a defamation trial against Emilio Palacio, one of the most recognized journalists in the country and now former chief editor of El Universo newspaper.

According to Correa's lawyer, Palacio's editorial [es] imputed to his client [es] allegations of murder, crimes against humanity and the ordering of troops to open fire on the hospital where Correa was being held on September 30, 2010.

Judge Juan Paredes sentenced [es] the journalist and three El Universo executives to three years in prison and a total of $40 million USD in fines. After learning about the judge's decision, Fernando Alvarado, Press Secretary of the Presidency, declared [es] that free speech is guaranteed in the country and that the government is not persecuting the media. Furthermore, Correa declared that the judge's ruling was correct because it “criminalizes freedom of extortion, not freedom of expression” [es].

Buró [es], a web site specializing in political management, public relations and  communication strategy, points out that the newspaper questioned the unusual speed with which the Ecuadorean courts acted: “In 4 months the trial of El Universo had 5 judges and the decision was resolved in less than a day.”

This was not the first time an Ecuadorean journalist had been sued for his or her commentary: the television show ‘La Television‘ was sued by former Culture Minister Sandra Correa (no relation to the president), and journalist Fredy Vidal Aponte [es] was sued by former Loja Major Jose Bolivar Castillo. Palacio himself had previously been sued for libel, by Camilo Samán, president of the National Finance Corporation (CFN).

Nor was it the first time that Correa's government has clashed with the media. As Amnesty International explains:

The latest case comes amid mounting concern about restrictions on freedom of expression in Ecuador. A referendum in May included a question about restrictions on news media ownership and creation of a government oversight body to review “excesses” in media content.

After the legal decision was made public there were innumerable reactions in Ecuador and abroad. The Ecuadorian Association of Newspaper Editors (AEDEP), the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (CIDH), and others are challenging the verdict.

Former ad hoc CIDH's judge Rey Cantor [es] expressed concern about the legal process followed in the case, saying that human rights were in fact violated on two counts: through the violation of freedom of expression and through the absence of due process supported by independent judges. Cantor also stated that the CIDH has established that vague and ambiguous libel standards cannot be used to impose liability on someone who is referred to a public official.

Furthermore, as The Economist’s Americas View blog reports:

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said the ruling was “contrary to regional freedom of expression standards” and would produce “self-censorship and a notable chilling effect that impacts not only the individuals convicted but Ecuadorean society as a whole.”

Ecuador's secretary of communications, Fernando Alvarado Espinel, responded in a letter to The Economist, stating that:

“In Ecuador, as in many other countries, a citizen’s right to defend his honour and reputation is protected by the constitution. Freedom of expression is not a free pass to supplant another’s right to defend his dignity.”

Bloggers react to ruling

Director and screenwriter Carlos Andrés Vera analyzes the language Palacio used in his column. At Polifiction [es], his personal blog, Vera writes that after reading the piece several times he concluded that the journalist did insult the president, but that both the lawsuit and the sentence were disproportionately harsh.

To José Fernando Gómez of Desde mi trinchera [es], the muzzling of the Ecuadorean press suggests a regime of dictatorship, and he explains why Ecuadoreans need to be vigilant:

Todos sabemos que las dictaduras, aunque le den centavos a los pobres para tenerlos de su lado, enriquece a las cabezas. En la Rusia comunista, sólo los del Politburó vivían bien. En la pobre Cuba el pueblo se muere de hambre mientras los Castro y su grupo viven opulentamente. Hemos visto videos y fotos de cómo viven los magnates de los países en los que los Gobernantes tienen tiempo en el poder, como vivía la familia Batista en la Cuba pre comunista, Sadam y tantos otros más.

We all know that dictatorships, although they give pennies to the poor to keep them on their side, enrich those at the top. In communist Russia, only the Politburo lived well. In poor Cuba the people are starving while Castro and his group live opulently. We have seen videos and pictures of how moguls live in countries where those that govern remain in power for a long time, as the Batista family lived in pre-communist Cuba, Saddam and many others.

As Global Voices previously reported, at least five national newspaper ran the very same cover story on August 10, Ecuador's Independence Day. Adam Isacson explained:

Major Ecuadorian newspapers ran the same cover today — “For Freedom of Expression” — to protest President Rafael Correa’s increasing verbal and legal attacks on the independent media. The President devoted 42 minutes to his State of the Union speech today to criticism of the press.

Fausto Lupera Martínez at El Ecuatoriano [es] refers to this State of the Union address where, on every August 10, the president must inform the National Assembly about the government's compliance with the National Development Plan and other objectives. He says Correa violated the Constitution because he delegated that part of his State of the Union speech to the Vice-President and other ministers, and dedicated a great part of his address to discussing the media and once again mentioning last year's police uprising.

Roque Planas from the Council of the Americas explains that “Correa says he offered to withdraw the lawsuit if the paper ran a correction, but the paper refused. Instead, El Universo offered to publish a statement from Correa, but he refused, too.”

The blog Guayaquil Insumiso [es] discusses cases where the Ecuadorean media spreads “gossip” and doesn't verify their sources:

Los medios se comportan como humanos, porque están manejados por humanos y en nuestra cultura estamos acostumbrados a difundir rumores como si fuesen verdades confirmadas. Que el periodismo político en Ecuador se maneje de la misma manera, lo hace digno de estar en un circo, porque a la final representa lo que somos; y todos somos dignos de estar en un circo.

The media act like humans, because they are run by humans and in our culture we are used to spreading rumors like if they were confirmed truths. The fact that political journalism behaves the same way, makes it worthy of a circus act, because in the end it represents who are are; and we are all worthy of a circus act.

A recent poll showed that President Correa has a 74.9 per cent approval rating, but this might change after Ecuadoreans learn that Palacio is unable to pay the fine and will lose his house as a consequence of this ruling.

Palacio has not retracted what he wrote in the aforementioned article, nor has President Rafael Correa formally accepted a promised amendment [es] by Carlos, Cesar and Nicolas Perez, owners and managers of El Universo in Guayaquil.

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