Latin America. In context.
Since taking office in January of 2007 Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has been heavy handed in his dealings with media in addition to aggressively pursuing his progressive policies.
As early as May of his first year as President, he audaciously and ironically had his security remove the editor of El Universo newspaper during an interview. The topic was freedom of speech.
He had sued the La Hora newspaper only 9 days before over an editorial.
Correa is taking advantage of loosely defined legal limits on freedom of speech in Ecuador not unlike the contentious Alien and Sedition acts passed in the United States more than two hundred years ago. The law makes illegal any “threats or libel that would offend the president.” Offenders face penalties of fines, and even prison time for offenses.
In 2011 Emilio Palacio, an opinion editor of the El Universo, was also sued by Correa for defamation. A single judge quickly decided the case, and ruled in the President’s favor by condemning the editor and three El Universo directors to three years in prison in addition to massive financial compensation equal to the total value of the newspaper in damages ($40 million).
During an appeal, the Ecuador’s highest court upheld the original ruling despite national and international protests.
In the editorial, the newspaper had suggested that Correa had ordered soldiers to fire on a hospital full of civilians during a possible coup attempt by police officers.
Correa continued his war against the press by suing an investigative book titled Gran Hermano (Big Brother) which alleges improprietous government contracts given to his brother Fabricio Correa.
Fortunately, largely because of international pressure brought to bear in the El Universo case Correa has ceremoniously pardoned the four who were sentenced to prison and dropped his case against the authors of Gran Hermano, but intense damage has been done to freedom of speech in Ecuador, and there is great concern for the future of democracy in the country if dissenting opinions, and a free exchange of ideas in the press is suppressed through the courts.