Ecuador: Correa’s Assault on the Media & Democracy

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa answers questions during a press conference.

by Gabby LaVerghetta

In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa is attempting to wipe out democracy, and he is succeeding. How? By targeting the media. Any good American history scholar knows the lofty rhetoric about the importance of a free press. It’s not just rhetoric. When that freedom disappears, many others follow.

As we watch the situation in Ecuador, we can see democracy crumbling in real time. Last week, Ecuador’s highest court upheld a criminal libel conviction against the country’s leading newspaper, El Universo.   Correa filed the lawsuit against the paper’s three owners and its opinion editor, Emilio Palacio, in March of last year. The case goes back to a column Palacio wrote in which he called Correa a dictator.

Earlier this month, two Ecuadoran journalists were found guilty of defamation after alleging that the president’s brother had contracts with the state.  They were ordered to pay $2 million in damages to Correa.

These are not the only such cases. They are just the most recent.

Correa is consolidating power, but oddly enough not in an entirely un-democratic way. A Committee to Protect Journalists report from September describes the steps Correa has taken since taking office in 2007.  He began tightening his control on the media after he pushed to have the country’s constitution rewritten. And in May of 2011, voters approved carefully worded referendums that damaged press freedom.

Correa is taking a similar stance to that of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who for several years has been setting controls on private media in his country.  (For more on the anti-media policies of Ecuador and Venezuela, please see:  “The Rapporteur’s Burden:  The Battle Over Free Speech at the OAS,” and “Muzzling the Rapporteur:  An Attack on a Champion of Free Speech.”)  Regulating ownership and suing for defamation are two ways for these leaders to keep the media in their pockets.

Press freedom advocates worry that the clampdown will spread through the Americas.

The unraveling Ecuadoran democracy provides two takeaways.

First, after the events of the Arab Spring, so much focus has been on internet freedom, and rightfully so. But we can’t forget that newspapers, television and radio are not obsolete. In areas of the world with low internet penetration, these media demand greater attention. Democracy cannot exist without freedom in all media.

Second, the democratic process can be manipulated. For a generation that can’t be bothered to read terms of agreement or licenses, this could prove to be a problem. As we saw with the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and are now seeing with Ecuador, the law can deceive us. What sounds beneficial (ending piracy, eliminating corrupt media) can often infringe on our rights. We would do well to think carefully about legislation and referendums involving the media.

(The photo of President Rafael Correa of Ecuador is from Agência Brasil, the government news agency of Brazil; the photo is by Marcello Casal Jr. and is available using a Creative Commons license.  To hear a podcast from Latin Pulse, covering the issue of Ecuador’s assault on the media and other issues facing the media in Latin America please click here.)

This entry was posted in "El Universo", Arab Spring, Committee to Protect Journalists, Ecuador, Free Speech, Hugo Chavez, Internet, Libel, Media, Newspapers, Rafael Correa, Venezuela and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Ecuador: Correa’s Assault on the Media & Democracy

  1. I’ve thought about a proper response to this comment, which calls into question the writing and editing of this post.

    First, the coercive nature of President Correa’s response to these critical articles and the quality of justice in Ecuador are certainly behind the decision this week by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights to intervene and request a hearing on the matter next month.

    Next, the issue of criminal libel: Palacio was writing an opinion piece. In many countries, the U.S. included, such political hyperbole included in the article would certainly be understood as opinion and thus covered under free speech. Human rights groups and groups supporting more freedom for journalists have long decried the use of so-called “respect” laws in some Latin American countries as a way to restrict critical media.

    It is important to note that the column that triggered this ruling (linked above) never mentions Correa by name and is clearly labeled as a column and opinion piece. Yes, Palacio provides no proof for his allegations, but the events surrounding what the president felt was a coup attempt remain murky. If the criticism is to go to the source documents, at least one of the critical articles that sparked this controversy is linked here for all to examine and decide.

    Correa’s manipulation of his country’s judicial system has been reported by The Economist and The Miami Herald. So to say that the journalists couldn’t prove their accusations of the contracts under question in an Ecuadoran court doesn’t really hold much weight. Ecuador’s Citizen Participation Council, a government watchdog and transparency organization also noted Correa knew of the contracts given to his brother.

    If you also question the judgments of Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists and various free speech groups, then we are happy to stand with them in our critical take on this case.

    • I stand by my earlier comments. Read Palacio’s commentary and you’ll see it would not qualify as libel in most advanced democracies in the world. It was a critical commentary, not a news article. Palacio should be allowed to print his opinion, and it was clearly labeled as opinion, not pure fact. The respect laws in Ecuador and elsewhere in Latin America have long been criticized as an unfair muzzle on the media.

      For more on Correa’s negative effects on free speech, please listen to the views of the Committee to Protect Journalists here:

  2. Martin Huber says:

    Palacio is guilty of libel not for calling Correa a dictator but for accusing him of crimes against humanity (without any evidence whatsoever).
    The two Ecuadoran journalists are guilty of defamation for stating that Correa knew about his brother’s contracts, a claim they were unable to prove in court.
    One should also mention that Correa has offered to drop the lawsuit/pardon the journalists if they retract the libelous accusations.
    If think there’s a valuable lesson in that: you should always – if possible – rely on original and not on second-hand sources and you shouldn’t judge without knowing all the pertinent facts.

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