BOGOTA -- When it comes to suing journalists, Ecuador President Rafael Correa is on a roll. Just 10 days after winning a $2 million judgment against two reporters, the courts upheld a $42 million criminal libel suit Correa filed against members of El Universo newspaper.
Early Thursday, Ecuadors high court found that three executives and one columnist for El Universo crossed the line when they wrote and printed a column suggesting that Correa had ordered troops to open fire on a hospital in 2010 where he was briefly held hostage. The ruling, which is not subject to appeal, also ratified three-year prison sentences for the men.
The El Universo case has drawn the ire of human rights and journalism groups that say Ecuador has been systematically targeting the opposition press.
This shortsighted ruling will only keep Ecuadoran journalists from investigating powerful politicians, Carlos Lauría of the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement. It represents a serious setback for democracy in Ecuador.
Correa, a charismatic populist who has enjoyed high approval ratings, has painted the media as the propaganda arm of oligarchs who attack his government under the guise of free speech.
On Thursday, he called the verdict a triumph of justice over power and predicted the ruling would unleash as wave of similar lawsuits in Ecuador and the region.
It will be a great step for the liberation of America, and freedom from one of the greatest powers that has operated with impunity the corrupt press, he said in a statement.
In a conference, he said his lawsuit had set a precedent by holding the media outlet and not just the columnist accountable.
We have proved that you can sue the clowns but also the owners of the circus, Correa said.
Three of the four men named in the lawsuit are outside Ecuador. On Thursday, Panama offered El Universo Director Carlos Pérez asylum. Columnist Emilio Palacio has sought political asylum in Miami.
Nicolas Pérez, one of the executives named in the suit, was also in Miami on Thursday, planning the newspapers strategy. He said the 90-year-old family business would continue printing and questioning power. The papers lawyers have filed a petition with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission for an injunction. But the damage to Ecuadors freedom of speech is already done, he said.
This ruling consolidates the governments censorship, Pérez told The Miami Herald. From now on, theres not a media director or owner in the country whos not going review every last comma in an opinion piece the chilling effect is complete.
The El Universo case revolves around a scathing editorial written by Palacio one year ago. The piece focused on the events of September 2010, when Correa was briefly taken hostage by protesting policemen.
The government claims the standoff was a failed coup premeditated and organized by the opposition. The police and government critics, however, say Correa created the chaos by wading into what was essentially a labor dispute.
What is known is that four security officers died when they raided the hospital to free the president. A fifth person died in another location.
In his editorial, Palacio suggested that a future president, perhaps an enemy, could press criminal charges against Correa for ordering troops to attack the hospital that was also full of civilians.