This article was written by Tim Padgett in Miami with Stephan Küffner in Quito
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa wanted the world to think he was being the magnanimous statesman. Standing before a hall at the Carondelet presidential palace in Quito filled with public officials and diplomats whom he’d called in to witness his clemency, Correa pardoned three executives and the opinion-page editor of the Guayaquil daily El Universo, who had recently been convicted and sentenced to prison terms, as well as $40 million in damages, for criminally defaming el Presidente. Correa insisted it had been his “absolute responsibility” to fight Ecuador’s “media dictatorship,” but in the end he opted for “forgiveness.”
Yet Correa was clearly on the defensive, and for good reason. In the 21st century, criminally prosecuting people for what they publish or broadcast is an archaic government cudgel better suited to dictatorships than to democracies. So when Ecuador’s highest court this month upheld the sentences against the three El Universo directors and Emilio Palacio, the columnist whose 2010 article harshly criticizing Correa had prompted the President to file the defamation charges, the outcry from international human rights and press freedom groups was remarkably loud. (Two of the directors left the country, while a third was given political asylum at the Panamanian embassy in Quito. Palacio last year fled to Miami.) Both the U.S. and European Union called the case worrisome, and the Inter-American Human Rights Commission had called for a hearing.
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The clamor was especially intense because just days before the El Universo ruling, Correa had also won a highly questionable $2 million libel award against the authors of El Gran Hermano (The Big Brother), a book that said Correa knew about dodgy government contracts his older brother Fabricio had received. The book claimed this because Fabricio himself told the authors the President knew about the contracts – and Fabricio admitted as much after the book was published. Correa’s critics say that sort of journalistic due diligence should have gotten the case thrown out the minute it was carried into court, were it not for the control he they say he exercises over Ecuador’s judiciary. (Correa denies that charge.)
Correa, a left-wing economist already notorious for his thin-skinned impatience with dissent, was now beginning to attract comparisons to the authoritarian likes of Fidel Castro. His Monday pardons – he also dropped his suit against the two book authors – were a welcome step back from that reputation. Still, the big question is whether they mark a retreat from the kind of media intimidation campaign that’s seeing a troubling revival in Latin America, not just among leftist leaders like Correa and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, but also from right-wingers like Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli.
At Monday’s address, Correa complained of a “corrupt, abusive press [that] has turned into a belligerent political actor against progressive governments.” But while Palacio’s op-ed certainly wasn’t Pulitzer-standard journalism – he accused Correa, with little if any evidence, of ordering troops to fire on a hospital during a police uprising – it was fodder for a civil court and not the criminal arena, where the threat of prison time is tantamount to government censorship of free speech.
And then there’s the issue of Mónica Encalada, an Ecuadorean judge involved in the El Universo case, who said this month that one of the President’s lawyers, Gutemberg Vera, had tried to bribe her. She also claimed that Juan Paredes, the judge who ultimately rendered the original verdict, told her that Vera was writing the sentence for him. (Whether or not her charges are true, and Vera and Paredes deny them, the ruling’s computer documentation does appear to have been tampered with.) Encalada has since fled to Colombia, and her accusations have raised more questions about judicial autonomy in Ecuador under Correa.
The worrisome bottom line is that Monday’s pardons were part of an Orwellian pattern: show the media what the government can do to them if it wants, then nobly “forgive” them – but keep the Damoclean sword of a jail cell or bankrupting court damages hanging over their heads. Last year, for example, Correa’s chief of staff, Vinicio Alvarado, pardoned indigenous leader Mónica Chuji after she was convicted of defaming him – by calling him nothing worse than “nouveau riche” – and sentenced to a year in prison and a payment of $100,000. In an op-ed this week in the Spanish daily El País, Peruvian author and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa wrote that such control over citizen expression is the “dream of demagogic pseudo-democracies… of which the government of Rafael Correa is an eminent representative.”
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If Correa, a democratically elected President who enjoys broad popularity among Ecuadoreans, sees little sympathy outside Ecuador for what he called “the damage to my honor,” it’s also because he can be just as slanderous. He regularly, and often libelously, uses his state-run media empire to savage the honor of his critics and rivals. But, not surprisingly, the Ecuadorean Congress, where his partisans hold a majority, has blocked any attempts by his targets to sue him. And while Correa denied he was interested in the money the El Universo and author cases could have brought him, critics point to the $600,000 he won from a previous libel case against an Ecuadorean bank – half of which he used to buy an apartment in Belgium.
Meanwhile, Correa ominously stumped Monday for “a real social media in which private [ownership] becomes the exception and not the rule.” One new law pushed by Correa forces media companies to sell off non-core assets by mid-July. Another, which went into effect this month, essentially makes the government the arbiter of what is and isn’t appropriate for publishing or broadcasting ahead of elections – and a bill tentatively scheduled for a vote in the Ecuadorean Congress next month would make those official censorship powers even broader. At the same time, other criminal and civil actions by the government against journalists and opponents are ongoing. Correa can pardon all he wants, but if this trend keeps up, he’s the one in the end who will be needing forgiveness.
Correction: The original version of this article mistakenly reported that in his Feb. 27 speech, President Correa did not mention the charges made by Judge Mónica Encalada. He did.