President Correa: A populist pursuing extractive natural resource economics and assaulting democracy, free speech and human rights.

An Assault on Democracy

President Rafael Correa of Ecuador is leading a relentless campaign against free speech, harassing his critics, forcing independent broadcasters off the air and hijacking the nation’s courts in his bid to bankrupt the country’s largest newspaper.


After Emilio Palacio, the editorial page editor of El Universo, wrote a column accusing Mr. Correa of ordering the army to open fire on a hospital during a police protest, Mr. Correa filed a criminal suit against the editor and three of the paper’s directors, claiming “aggravated defamation of a public official.”

Despite outrageous irregularities — the case was finally decided by a “temporary magistrate” who, according to an independent forensic analysis, may have outsourced the job of writing the decision to the president’s lawyer — an appeals court confirmed a $40 million award for the president, plus three-year sentences for the directors and Mr. Palacio. A final appeal by the directors is expected to be heard on Wednesday. Mr. Palacio has run out of appeals.

Looking forward to next year’s presidential elections, in which he is likely to run, Mr. Correa has also pushed through a law that would forbid the news media from “either directly or indirectly promoting any given candidate, proposal, options, electoral preferences or political thesis, through articles, specials or any other form of message.”

Mr. Correa’s assault on the press has rightly drawn criticism from the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the Organization of American States. Now he is trying to silence the rapporteur. Last month, his government presented the O.A.S. with recommendations to “improve” the special rapporteur, by reducing its financing, limiting the scope of its annual reports and imposing a code of conduct to restrict its independence.

The United States and others only belatedly recognized what Mr. Correa was up to. In December, the O.A.S. adopted a broader final report on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights monitoring system that included some of the recommendations. When the O.A.S. ambassadors meet in Washington this week, they should do all they can — there is room to maneuver — to protect the financing and the voice of the rapporteur. Mr. Correa, predictably, couches his moves in populist rhetoric. “When we are liberating our states from the de facto powers that always dominated them — like the power of information — these de facto powers accuse us,” he said in a speech before Latin-American leaders in December. There is no doubt that his assault on a free press is an assault on democracy.

Latin America has a bitter history of authoritarian rule. It has struggled hard to get beyond those days. All of the hemisphere’s democratic leaders, including President Obama, need to push back against Mr. Correa.

Source: International Herald Tribune

Ecuador court upholds pro-Correa libel verdict

QUITO, Ecuador — Ecuador’s highest court upheld early Thursday a criminal libel verdict favoring President Rafael Correa, sentencing three newspaper executives and a columnist to three years in prison each and ordering them to pay a total of $42 million in damages.

The defendants, joined by international press freedom and human rights groups, had called the case a cynical attempt by Correa to bankrupt the country’s leading opposition newspaper, El Universo, and part of a concerted campaign to stifle free speech and silence critics.

After a 13 1/2-hour hearing on Wednesday, the three-judge panel of the National Court of Justice deliberated nearly two hours before ratifying the verdict, which is not subject to appeal.

Correa was present both for the ruling and during Wednesday’s entire hearing.

The defendants had called the case a farce and accused Correa of subverting the legal system, including allowing his attorney to write the original ruling.

Groups including Human Rights Watch have decried criminal defamation laws such as Ecuador’s, which they say give politicians such as Correa immense power to crush dissent.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement that the ruling “represents a serious setback for democracy in Ecuador.”

Before final deliberations began, Judge Wilson Merino asked both sides if they had reached a resolution.

The defendants’ attorney, Monica Vargas, said the Guayaquil-based newspaper “has always been open” to a solution.

But Correa said “in the face of such dirty tricks at this point in time an apology cannot be accepted.”

Correa said he had no choice but to file suit to defend himself against false accusations in a column by Palacio that El Universo published a year ago.

It repeatedly referred to Correa as “the Dictator” and said he “ordered discretionary fire – without prior notification – against a hospital full of civilians and innocent people” during a Sept. 30, 2010, police revolt over government plans to cut police benefits that claimed at least five lives.

Three of the four defendants left Ecuador before the verdict, saying they feared for their safety. Only El Universo’s director, Carlos Perez, was apparently still in the country.

In a statement, he called the verdict “particularly alarming because it exposed raw corruption in Ecuador’s judicial system, which was manipulated by Correa and his cronies to wage a full-scale attack on our newspaper and the sacred right of free speech.”

“People should be under no illusions about what the impact of this case will be: It already has had a chilling effect on what Ecuadoreans can say and report.”

His brothers Nicolas and Cesar, the paper’s new media manager and deputy director, were in Miami along with Emilio Palacio, the columnist and former opinion page editor of the newspaper.

Correa said the verdict would “change history.”

“This creates a precedent not just for Ecuador but also in all of our America(s),” he said.

Correa’s leftist allies in Latin America, chiefly President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, have also been accused of using heavy-handed tactics against aggressive opposition media that they have called representatives of an oligarchy opposed to their efforts to impose “21st-century socialism.”

Vargas said the sentence “in no way closes the case.”

The defendants said in a statement issued early Thursday that they would continue to publish as long as they are able and had already sought a “preliminary injunction” with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous panel based in Washington, D.C., that would order Ecuador to suspend execution of the sentence pending a full review.

With a 70 percent approval rating, Correa is among Latin America’s most popular leaders thanks in part to an array of state-funded programs that have brought stability to a traditionally unruly nation.

His support was on display outside the courthouse Wednesday as his backers scuffled with defenders of El Universo, struck at least three journalists and burned issues of El Universo and another newspaper, El Comercio.

The press freedom director of the Inter-American Press Association, Ricardo Trotti, said Wednesday in Miami at a news conference with Nicolas and Cesar Perez that the sentence, first handed down in July, was “completely repressive and disproportionate.”

The Perez brothers said they were considering seeking political asylum in the United States, which Palacio last week announced that he had requested.

The El Universo team are not the only journalists Correa has attacked in the courts.

Last week, a judge ordered two journalists to pay $1 million each to the president or offending Correa’s “honor” and “professional prestige” by claiming he was aware that his older brother had some $600 million in government countracts, primarily for road construction.

Correa has also succeeded in winning through a ballot question last year a constitutional provision restricting news media ownership and creating a government oversight panel that would regulate news media content for “excesses.”

And he further angered press freedom advocates by winning congressional approval of a law that bars the news media from broadcasting or publishing any material that could influence opinions about candidates or proposals during election campaigns.

Source: Huff Post

Ecuador leader wins libel suit against newspaper

QUITO (AFP) – Ecuador’s high court on Thursday ruled against the El Universo newspaper in a libel suit filed by President Rafael Correa that was seen as a crucial test of press freedoms in the South American country.

The National Court of Justice (CNJ) sentenced the three top executives of the media company to three years in prison and fined them $40 million, denying an appeal as “out of order.”

Correa sued the El Universo daily in March 2011 alleging “defamatory libel” over a column by former opinion page editor Emilio Palacio that accused the president of crimes against humanity.

Palacio suggested that a future president could take Correa before a criminal court for ordering the military to fire at its discretion on a hospital on September 30, 2010, during a police uprising.

A lower court judge ruled against the newspaper in July, handing down the $40 million judgment and prison sentences against the newspaper’s publisher, Carlos Perez, deputy directors Cesar Perez and Nicolas Perez, and Palacio, who fled to Miami. An appeals court upheld the sentence in September.

The latest ruling will not take effect for three days, allowing the parties to request clarifications, according to defense attorneys.

The case has been widely criticized by rights groups as a blow to freedom of speech in Ecuador and also calls into question the independence of the Ecuadoran courts.

Xavier Zavala, a lawyer for El Universo, on Wednesday said the case had turned Ecuador into an object of “ridicule.”

But Correa hailed the ruling at a press conference early Thursday, saying it would “change history.”

“Freedom belongs to everyone, not just those who can afford to buy a printing press,” he said. “This has been a struggle for true freedom of expression.”

He added that he would have preferred to have avoided going to court, and that he wished the newspaper had had “the decency to correct the mistake.”

The defense has vowed to take the case to the Interamerican Human Rights Commission and then to the Interamerican Human Rights Court, and a lawyer for the newspaper called the $40 million fine “irrational and immoral.”

The newspaper’s management had said the fine would likely bankrupt it, given that the daily’s total capital is just $35 million.

Correa has said the compensation awarded by the court will go to an official global warming initiative.

Speaking in Miami on Wednesday, Cesar and Nicolas Perez said they feared for their safety in Ecuador.

“Of course we’re afraid … it’s been five years of violent statements from the president against the media in general, with a special fixation against El Universo,” Cesar Perez said at a press conference.

Palacio has sought political asylum in Miami and is considered a fugitive from Ecuador.

The column in question referred to a foiled attempt to oust Correa, an elected leftist and economist by training, in September 2010.

Hundreds of police had risen up in revolt over a law that reduced their bonus pay. Correa was cornered in a police hospital for 12 hours after his attempt to personally confront rebellious officers in the capital backfired.

Correa was rescued by loyal soldiers and police. The president claims that the uprising — which left 10 dead and 274 wounded — was instigated by former president Lucio Gutierrez.

The president has taken other legal action against what he calls the “corrupt” media, leading critics to accuse him of attacking free speech.

Earlier this month a provincial court ordered two journalists to pay Correa $2 million in damages over a book that describes contracts the state awarded to the president’s brother, Fabricio Correa, worth a total of $167 million.

Correa denies he knew of the deals ahead of time and said he moved to stop the contracts once he learned of them.
Source: The West Australian

~ by FSVSF Admin on 16 February, 2012.

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