Ecuador’s Correa Wins Another Libel Case: Are the Latin American Media Being Bullied?

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Rodrigo Buendia / AFP / Getty Images

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa (R) speaks next to his lawyer Alembert Vera at the National Court of Justice (CNJ) in Quito, on January 24, 2012.

This article was written by Tim Padgett in Miami with Stephan Küffner in Quito

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa sued the wrong guys. In their 2010 book, El Gran Hermano (The Big Brother), Ecuadorean journalists Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita write that the President’s older brother, Fabricio Correa, told them that the President knew all about the up to $120 million in federal construction contracts that firms tied to Fabricio were being awarded under a questionable bidding process (so questionable, in fact, that the President was eventually compelled to shut the policy down). Fabricio never denied telling the authors the President was aware of the possibly nepotistic contracts; in fact, Fabricio has since repeated it publicly.

So did an infuriated President Correa sue his chatty gran hermano for libel? Nope. He sued the journalists, for $5 million a piece – even though newspaper reporting by Calderón and Zurita had helped convince him that the controversial bidding process should be scuttled. Still, wouldn’t any judge with half a legal education dismiss the President’s suit? Apparently not in Ecuador. This week, Quito Judge María Mercedes Portilla ordered the journalists to pay the President $1 million each because, she ruled, their book had scarred his “honor, dignity and good name” and had caused him “spiritual damage.” All this despite the fact that the authors themselves don’t claim President Correa knew about his brother’s contracts; rather, “we’re quoting [Fabricio] as saying [the President] knew,” Calderón told TIME in response to Portilla’s decision.

But as a journalist, Calderón has figured out by now that President Correa’s suit and others like it – this week’s libel victory, in fact, was the President’s third since he took office five years ago – seems less about holding the fourth estate accountable and more about putting it in its place. President Correa is part of the bloc of left-wing Latin American leaders led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez; and like Chávez, he has been widely criticized by international democracy and press freedom groups for allegedly trying to muzzle his nation’s media. The President denies the bullying; but they point to suits like the one he won this week; to a sweeping new law that they say makes him Ecuador’s de facto media censor; and to criminal defamation laws that can put reporters, editors or other critical voices behind bars for material he and his allies deem an insult to their “honor.”

President Correa, via a judicial branch that critics say he’s made largely subordinate to the executive, has also exercised what Carlos Lauria, Americas director for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, calls “disproportionality.” The President, Lauria argues, guns for hefty awards “that he knows the journalists will not be able to pay, so that it will have a chilling effect on their work in Ecuador.” The $2 million Portilla ordered Calderón and Zurita to pay matches the highest damages ever awarded in Ecuador – to a couple whose children were murdered by police in the 1980s.

(See: ” Is Chávez Quelling Dissent With Anti-Defamation Law?)

Granted, Ecuador’s journalism culture isn’t always the most professional – though the irony in the latest case is that President Correa went after two of the country’s best investigative reporters. (They are appealing Portilla’s ruling.) He, like Chávez in Venezuela, is admittedly a gratuitously polarizing politician. But, like Chávez and other heads of state in Latin America, he also faces an opposition press that itself can be gratuitously polarizing. The President says he’s fighting the “corrupt” and “irresponsible” practices of an elite media. In a recent Miami Herald op-ed, his Ambassador to the U.S., Nathalie Cely, chided foreign journalists and rights groups for treating the conflict between the President and Ecuador’s traditional publishing families “as though it represented some new sort of Armageddon for the journalism profession” — when, she wrote, he’s simply confronting “lies [that] are published about him.”

Cely argues that in the U.S., President Obama “has been harmed by ludicrous false charges about his birthplace.” Yet Obama has never sued or prosecuted Fox News; credible leadership doesn’t wear skin that thin. Ecuador’s trend of course isn’t Armageddon, but it’s worrisome enough there and in Latin America – it’s apparent not just in countries like Ecuador, Venezuela and Nicaragua that are ruled from the left, but also in nations like Panama that are governed from the right – to cause hemispheric concern, especially as the rate of deadly violence against journalists in Latin America (see Mexico and Honduras) keeps spiraling. And the most troubling aspect of that current is the criminalization of speech – particularly when much of the rest of the world has come to the conclusion that jailing people for what they say or write belongs in the same musty attic of judicial customs where we’ve consigned debtor’s prisons and sodomy laws.

The most controversial media case currently roiling Ecuador involves the convictions of an Ecuadorean columnist, Emilio Palacio, and three editors at his Quito newspaper, El Universo, for an anti-Rafael Correa op-ed that Palacio wrote after a police uprising against the President in 2010. Palacio isn’t exactly a hero in this instance: his article accused the President of the “war crime” of ordering security forces to open fire on unarmed civilians – a doubtful claim for which Palacio provided little or no supporting evidence. Even so, in the 21st century the matter should have been handled in civil and not criminal court – where last year Palacio and the editors were found guilty of defaming the President and each was sentenced to three years in prison as well as fines totaling $40 million. The verdict is under appeal, and Palacio has since fled to Miami.

Countries across Latin America, including Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, have scrapped their criminal defamation laws. But President Correa, an economist, risked sounding like a caudillo throwback last fall in a speech at Columbia University in New York when he insisted that such statutes still make sense. “It seems very strange,” he said, “that there is no jail sentence for damaging a human being’s honor, although there is jail for those who are charged with mistreating a dog.”

That outlook helps explain why a new law went into effect in Ecuador this month that essentially makes the government the arbiter of what can and can’t be published or broadcast there. As if that censorship specter wasn’t haunting enough, the new rules include a media blackout during election campaigns, prohibiting anything that “would tend to influence in favor of or against a particular candidate, postulates, options, voting preferences or political ideas.”

At the same time, the President has built up a large state-run media apparatus that makes sure his political ideas get a loud hearing. The Ecuadorean Congress, where his partisans hold a majority, has blocked any libel or slander suits against him – even though he’s famous for spouting invective against opponents and journalists (on state TV he called Calderón and Zurita “sick clowns, little cockroaches”) that could also be considered defamatory. Meanwhile, brother Fabricio, while denying the contracts his firms received were illegal, this week happily reiterated that the President “knows everything I’m up to.” But a caveat to the reporters who scribbled his words: make sure your bank accounts can handle a defamation suit.