In Ecuador, an appeals court upheld the sentence against the three owners and a former columnist of newspaper El Universo in a criminal libel case brought by President Rafael Correa. The defendents each face three years in prison and must pay $40 million in damages to the president over an opinion column, published in February, which called the president a dictator.
The editorial also questioned Correa’s version of the events of September 30, 2010, when there were disturbances which Correa claimed were part of an attempted coup against him. After making unpopular cuts to police benefits, the president made an impassioned speech at an occupied police barracks, calling on protesting officers to “Kill [me] if you are brave enough." He was taken to a hospital after being teargassed in the resulting disturbances, where he then claimed to be trapped by rebels trying to overthrow his government, and was rescued by army troops in an operation which left at least two dead.
The El Universo article denied the existence of any coup plot, and criticized Correa’s decision to tell soldiers to fire at will when “rescuing” the president from the hospital.
The author of the column, Emilio Palacio, fled to the U.S. in late August to avoid prison, while the newspaper is likely to go bankrupt in paying the fine. Following the ruling, Correa said that he may consider dropping the case if the newspaper issues an apology.
Analysts have commented that the trial was carried out much more quickly than such cases usually are, and that the court adjusted proceedings to suit the schedule of the president. Employees of El Universo protested outside their offices following the ruling.
Campaign organizations the Committe to Protect Journalists announced its disappointment over the ruling, calling it a blow to freedom of expression in Ecuador. In a report on the state of the press in that country, published earlier this month, it found that Correa had, in less than five years in power “turned Ecuador into one of the hemisphere’s most restrictive nations for the press.” According to the report,
The Correa administration has repeatedly forced individual broadcasters to air lengthy government rebuttals to critical news reports, thus supplanting independent viewpoints with its own.
BBC Mundo compares the sentencing in the El Universo case to other compensation payouts.
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