The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice: The Economist on President Correa vs the media

Ecuador’s media

Muzzled

ON NUMEROUS occasions Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president, has promised to defend freedom of speech with his life. In practice, however, he has steadily chipped away at the freedom of his country’s press. The most-publicised example of this trend has been his libel suit over a controversial opinion column against El Universo, a newspaper, in which a judge awarded him $40m and sentenced the author and his bosses to jail time. On February 15th the supreme court upheld the award, which could leave the publication bankrupt. The suit has caused several people to flee the country, including a judge who reportedly said the ruling was written by one of Mr Correa’s own lawyers. A director of El Universo was granted asylum in Panama. A few days earlier the president won a court judgment in a separate case for a further $2m, from two journalists who reported on the government’s dealings with Mr Correa’s brother’s companies.

Amidst these victories, the president has moved towards outright censorship. In January, using the powers to modify legislation he enjoys under the constitution he got approved in 2008, Mr Correa introduced into an electoral reform bill a rule stating that “the media must refrain from direct or indirect promotion, either through features, specials or any other form of message, which would tend to influence in favour of or against a particular candidate, postulates, options, voting preferences or political ideas.” In other words, the clause bans any statement that could be construed as supporting or criticising a candidate. “Private media want to continue with their power,” Mr Correa said last month, “and carry out election campaigns, promote candidates and install and remove presidents.”

The breadth of the ban has left editors wondering what, if anything, may be reported lest it appear to unduly influence voters. Since the government cannot monitor every published word, the opposition fears Mr Correa will have it enforced selectively to his benefit. The president retorts that state media will have to limit their coverage as well.

Ecuador’s constitution prohibits changes to the electoral system within 12 months of a vote. The new restriction took effect on February 4th, but the next general election had already been scheduled for January 2013 by the nominally independent electoral board. On February 16th Mr Correa duly announced to the press that the vote will be postponed until February of next year, allowing the new rules to be implemented ahead of the election.

The president recently touted a poll giving him an approval rating close to 80%. Yet his efforts to rein in the media suggest he is much less confident in his chances of winning another term than he would like to admit.

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Lèse-presidente

Rafael Correa seeks to bankrupt his media foes

No news is good news for Correa

FOR a man who calls his country’s legal system dysfunctional and corrupt, Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president, has fared remarkably well in the courts. In 2008 he won $600,000 when he sued Banco Pichincha, Ecuador’s biggest bank, because it had mistakenly included him in a list of delinquent credit-card holders. On July 20th a judge ordered Emilio Palacio, a former columnist for El Universo, one of Ecuador’s main newspapers, and three of the paper’s directors, to pay Mr Correa the colossal total of $40m in damages, and sentenced all of the four men to three years in jail.

Mr Correa sued over a column, published in February, referring to a controversial incident last year in which, amid a gun battle, troops whisked him out of a hospital where he had sought refuge during a mutiny by police. The president himself claimed he was the victim of an attempted coup. Mr Palacio wrote that Mr Correa, whom he called a “dictator”, might some day face criminal prosecution for putting his own safety above anyone else’s when he told soldiers they could fire at the mutineers outside a hospital full of people. Mr Palacio implied that this was a war crime, but provided no evidence for his claim.

Mr Correa had reason to feel aggrieved at this slur. But he rejected an offer by El Universo to publish a rebuttal. His choice of remedy has cast a chill over Ecuador’s independent media. The president attended the court in person. A small crowd of his supporters pelted the defendants and their lawyers with eggs and bottles outside the courthouse. The media were barred from the hearing.

The defendants have appealed, and are seeking to have the case annulled on procedural grounds. (The sentences will not be implemented until after the appeal.) They say the damages would almost bankrupt El Universo.

Mr Correa hailed the verdict as ending a “reign of terror” by the media, though he also said he would appeal, seeking the full $80m in damages he originally claimed. He insists he wants justice, not money, and will donate the damages to an environmental scheme. (He spent half the $600,000 from Banco Pichincha—on which the tax office did not ask him to pay income tax—on a flat in Belgium.)

Ecuador’s independent media has fallen into the trap of acting as a political opposition to Mr Correa, a popular and powerful president. But Mr Correa has shown a disturbing intolerance of criticism. He is also suing the authors of a book about his elder brother’s business dealings with the government. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said the ruling against El Universo was “contrary to regional freedom-of-expression standards” and would result in self-censorship. The president may be elected, but he is doing his best to live up to Mr Palacio’s gibe that he is a dictator.

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The good life

For the president and for lawyers

Correa dictates his socialist credoReuters

IF ONLY size, novelty and good intentions were everything when it came to constitutions, Ecuador would be a paradise. The document approved on July 25th by a Constituent Assembly dominated by supporters of Rafael Correa, the leftist president, is a 444-article behemoth. If approved by a referendum on September 28th, it will become Ecuador’s 20th constitution and the third in as many decades. It is nothing if not politically correct: it bans foreign military bases, promises a “just wage” and enshrines manifold rights, including that tosumak kawsay, or “good living” in Quichua, one of two indigenous languages whose use it now makes official alongside Spanish. Whether it will improve real life in a chronically misgoverned country is another matter.

Mr Correa insists that it will. He says the new constitution puts an end to “partyocracy”, “neoliberalism”, and the rule of economic “mafias”. One of his main aims is to reduce the clashes between the executive and a powerful but fragmented legislature that has seen the past three elected presidents fail to finish their term. The new text does this by substantially increasing presidential power. The president will be able to dismiss the legislature. Mr Correa’s nominees seem sure to form a majority on a powerful new Constitutional Court.

The constitution officially declares Ecuador to have a “social and solidaristic” economy. It gives state-owned companies a dominant role in oil, mining, electricity, transport and telecommunications, reflecting the government’s mistrust of the private sector. “The market is an excellent servant but a terrible master,” says Mr Correa.

This socialist pitch is popular in Ecuador largely because the country was scarred by an economic collapse in 1999, which featured a mishandled banking crisis, hyperinflation and the adoption of the dollar as the currency.

Opponents of Mr Correa worry that the constitution imposes an earlier failed economic model on the country. Although the state already controls much of an oil-dominated economy, the private operators of a handful of water utilities and airports face an uncertain future. The new constitution bans international arbitration and gives priority to local investors over foreigners. So it is certain to drive away almost all foreign investment. The Central Bank will come under presidential control: that paves the way for a possible future abandonment of the dollar in favour of a new local currency, and for the potential massaging of economic statistics.

Mr Correa, a youngish Catholic economist, who took office 18 months ago, remains popular. High oil prices have given him money to spend on social programmes. Public investment is running at twice last year’s level. He is likely to win the referendum, and a fresh election next year. But his success depends on oil money. By writing into it his personal political creed, Mr Correa has almost certainly guaranteed that Ecuador’s latest constitution will not long outlast his tenure of the presidency. And if Ecuadoreans do see much of the good life, they are likely to have to pay for it dearly in the future.

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SELVA Vida Sin Fronteras acknowledges Kevin Schafer’s important contribution towards protecting the highly endangered Amazon pink fresh water dolphin. Title photographs of our “The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice” were taken by Mr. Schafer. 

Editorial: Selvavidasinfronteras.org

Selvavidasinfronteras.wordpress.com

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~ by FSVSF Admin on 22 February, 2012.

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