Back in May, Ecuadorean voters approved a referendum that gave President Rafael Correa broader authority to regulate opposition journalists. At the time, Freedom House expressed concern that Correa was acquiring “undue influence over the country’s media,” and its senior program manager for Latin America, Viviana Giacaman, said that “Correa’s continuous demonization of independent media and the use of criminal defamation suits to silence journalists are having a chilling effect on the press in Ecuador.”
Lest anyone think that Giacaman was exaggerating the problem, a columnist for Ecuador’s chief opposition newspaper, El Universo, was recently sentenced to three years in jail, as were three of the paper’s executives. The four men were also fined $30 million, and El Universo was forced to pay another $10 million. Their alleged crime? “Libeling” President Correa by publishing an article that called him a “dictator” and challenged his version of events surrounding a 2010 police protest. Correa has insistedwith no real evidencethat the protest amounted to a “coup attempt,” and he responded to the article by filing an $80 million lawsuit that was clearly intended to bankrupt the paper and intimidate other opposition journalists.
The columnist who wrote the controversial piece, Emilio Palacio, described the July 20 ruling as “a barbarity.” The Committee to Protect Journalists also condemned it, urging Ecuadorean officials to “bring the country’s press law into compliance with international standards on freedom of expression.” Meanwhile, dozens of Ecuadorean op-ed writers have signed a statement that reads in part: “We express our solidarity with Emilio Palacio in his right to exercise his freedom of speech. We reject the pressure that political power has brought to bear over the courts to obtain rulings that contribute to silence the press.” To its great credit, the Washington Post ran an editorial highlighting Palacio’s case and blasting Correa for his thuggish efforts to “destroy or silence” independent media.
Ecuador is moving closer to Venezuelan-style autocracy, and Correa shows no signs of relenting in his persecution of critical journalists. In addition to filing suit against El Universo, the leftist president has also suedjournalists Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita for supposedly defaming his brother (whom Calderón and Zurita accused of corruption). Correa is seeking $10 million in damages.
Hugo Chávez is losing the battle for ideological supremacy in Latin America as a whole. But, sadly, he appears to be winning in Ecuador.