Ecuador’s Correa: A continued assault on freedom

International media and human-rights organizations have condemned the fiery leftwing leader of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, for conducting a comprehensive and ruthless assault on the news media.

After his reelection in February, and following the death in March of his ally Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Correa has deepened his efforts to eliminate Ecuador’s remaining legal rights. He has manipulated the nation’s court system to bully, silence and persecute opponents. His victims include journalists, civic and labor leaders, opposition politicians and businessmen who dare to criticize his abuses or to investigate corruption scandals.

To undermine constitutional separation of powers, Correa called a referendum in 2011 to “restructure” the Supreme Court, after which he appointed 21 new justices, most of whom had direct ties to him or his cabinet.

Since then, according to news stories in Ecuador, at least a dozen judicial cases in which the president publicly expressed an opinion resulted in sentences corresponding to Correa’s desires. One favorite method of ordaining judicial results is through his Saturday TV show, Sabatina.

During these nationally broadcast TV appearances, Correa vociferously rails against journalists, politicians or civil society leaders, threatening, insulting and accusing, while showing their faces on camera. It is well known in Ecuador that this is how Correa “instructs” judges on how to rule. It is a transparent but clever method. If challenged, he can say that he was merely communicating with the people. The Judges know better, especially if they want to keep their jobs.

One victim of Correa’s judicial persecution is Cesar Ricaurte, director of the NGO Fundamedios, a nonprofit press watchdog organization. Ricaurte and several colleagues attended a hearing of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights in Washington in March to provide evidence of press and other rights violations in Ecuador. Immediately thereafter, President Correa, in his Saturday program, accused Ricaurte and his colleagues of undermining the “country’s internal order,” thus virtually accusing them of sedition. As a result, Fundamedios directors have received anonymous threats and say they do not feel safe even walking in the streets.

Another victim is Fernando Villavicencio, an Ecuadorean journalist and former leader of the oil workers’ union. For the past few years, Villavicencio has investigated and exposed some of the most serious corruption scandals in the Correa administration, a risky task. Two years ago, Villavicencio challenged Correa’s account of a major crisis that occurred in September of 2010.

At that time, a pay dispute by police led to disturbances that Correa described as an attempted coup d’etat. Instead, Villavicencio formally accused Correa of taking advantage of the chaos to portray himself as the victim of a non-existing coup.

Correa considered Villavicencio’s account to be “defamation” and sued him. The president devoted lengthy TV appearances to attack Villavicencio and Assemblyman Clever Jimenez, that leveled similar accusations against Correa. As a result, one of Correa’s newly appointed justices recently sentenced Villavicencio and Congressman Jimenez to 18 months in prison for “libel.” Moreover, the defendants were ordered to apologize to Correa in newspapers, on TV and radio, and pay the president (not the Ecuadorean state) a preposterously high financial compensation. Their “crime”: espousing an account of national events that differed from Correa’s.

These are just two of countless of Correa efforts to silence opposition voices. The result: journalists fired by fearful employers; civil society leaders afraid of political retaliation; and opposition congressmen defenseless against an authoritarian government that uses all the power at its disposal to silence dissent.

Correa will continue to use his control over the judiciary to consolidate all power in his person. Only Ecuador’s civil society stands in his way. There is no question on what side the United States must stand.

Otto Reich is a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs and U.S. ambassador in Venezuela. Ezequiel Vazquez-Ger is a member of the nonprofit organization Americas Forum for Freedom and Prosperity.

Editor’s Note: May 3 is World Press Freedom Day.

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