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ECUADOR: President Wins Defamation Suit Against Newspaper Execs

Gonzalo Ortiz

QUITO, Jul 21 2011 (IPS) - President Rafael Correa of Ecuador has won a libel suit against the newspaper El Universo over an op-ed column that referred to him as the “Dictator” and accused him of committing “crimes against humanity.”

Wednesday’s ruling was the latest chapter in the clash between the Ecuadorean government and the media.

The judge trying the case sentenced newspaper owners Carlos, César and Nicolás Perez and former editorial page editor Emilio Palacio to three years in prison, and ordered the four to pay Correa 30 million dollars, as well as fining El Universo another 10 million dollars.

In his suit, Correa, a left-leaning economist who took office in 2007, had requested 80 million dollars in damages.

The final hearing before the trial judge was held Tuesday Jul. 19, and the sentence was handed down the next day, with unusual speed.

In a Feb. 6 editorial titled “No to Lies”, Palacio never mentioned Correa by name, surname or elected position. Instead, he called him “Dictator” nine times and referred to his government as the “Dictatorship”.

Palacio’s column was about the violent Sept. 30, 2010 police uprising that almost sparked a coup d’état when rebel police officers held Correa for several hours inside the police hospital, until he was rescued in an operation in which one police officer was killed.

In the editorial, Palacio wrote that “a new president, possibly an enemy of his, could accuse him in a criminal court of having ordered security forces to fire at will and without warning against a hospital full of civilians and innocent people.”

Correa regarded the statement as defamatory, denied that he ordered the security forces to shoot at the hospital where he was held against his will, and demanded that a retraction be published.

The El Universo executives waited until Tuesday’s hearing to read out a letter saying: “Since it is impossible for us to rectify statements that we ourselves did not make – and since we cannot anticipate whether our correction would satisfy you – we propose that you send us the text of the correction you demand, so that we may publish it in its entirety in El Universo, on the day and in the space you choose.”

Correa had said earlier that if a correction had been published, the lawsuit would have been dropped.

But in court, he did not accept the offer. After the hearing, the president said: “It’s too late! The time for us gentlemen who love truth and ethics was over long ago.”

The executives allowed Palacio to publish his op-ed piece, which according to Correa embodied “the abuse and cowardice of a pen-wielding hatchet man, who hides behind an ink-pot so that he can humiliate and denigrate. A decent newspaper should have retracted such a fabrication, but El Universo never did.”

Palacio, whose article concluded by accusing Correa of crimes against humanity, resigned from his position at the newspaper last week.

In the early stages of the trial, which was delayed by changes of the judges in charge of the case, Correa declared that it would be part of his “legacy” against “corruption in the press.”

Diego Cornejo, the head of the Ecuadorean Association of Newspaper Editors (AEDEP), told IPS that El Universo had suggested a settlement that would give “the president every opportunity to make good the moral harm he claims to have suffered.”

“There is a great deal of pressure on the judges,” he added. In his view, if the sentence is upheld, journalism in Ecuador will in future be subject to self-censorship.

“The problem is that journalism has become vulnerable to litigation,” Jaime Mantilla, the editor of the newspaper Hoy, told IPS. On Monday Jul. 18 he had to appear before the Electoral Disputes Tribunal on a charge brought by Policy Minister Doris Soliz of violating the ban on political advertising in the media during the electoral blackout period. He was acquitted.

In the view of Orlando Pérez, deputy director of the state newspaper El Telégrafo, self-censorship is a spectre that has raised its head once more, but has always existed in the journalistic profession.

“The first thing that should be noted is that El Universo’s offer was a belated recognition that it made a mistake. Then, the owners washed their hands of any responsibility and left Palacio to face the music alone,” Pérez, in whose view the retraction should have been published immediately, told IPS.

“If they had done this, and apologised to the president, the outcome would have been very different. But that would have gone against El Universo’s rather arrogant principle that ‘we will not be silenced and we will not apologise’,” Orlando Pérez said.

With their harsh language and name-calling, Palacio and other editorialists “have supplanted the political opposition,” he said, although he admitted that “some of the president’s language is degrading and can wound those at whom it is aimed.”

Correa has brought another libel suit against two other journalists, Juan Carlos Calderón and Cristian Zurita, for 10 million dollars, over a book that revealed a number of state contracts obtained by the president’s brother, Fabricio Correa.

The president denied all knowledge of the contracts, which he said were cancelled as soon as they came to light, and accused the journalists of attempting to discredit his good name and reputation using “false and libellous” information.

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