Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Correa Strikes a Blow Against Press Freedom in Ecuador

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.

News Briefs

  • In an interview with TV network CBS, Mexican President Felipe Calderon hinted at legalization as a possible solution for the problems caused by the illegal drug trade. The president said that, if the U.S. cannot reduce demand for drugs, "decision makers must look for other solutions, including market alternatives." Despite being a strong critic of the 2010 California referendum to decriminalize marijuana, saying it would undermine Mexico’s struggle against drugs, Calderon has previously made gestures in favor of the idea as a way to cut revenues going to Mexico’s cartels. In August 2010 he called for a debate on the issue of legalizing drug consumption in Mexico, saying that all sides of the argument should be considered.
  • In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega said that his country could only help with Europe’s debt crisis once the region had taken action to resolve its own problems. "Europe has to save itself because it has the tools to resolve the sovereign debt problem of Greece and other countries and the problem of bank weakness," said the minister.
  • In more news from Mexico, 35 dead bodies bearing signs of torture were dumped on a main thoroughfare in the southern Gulf city of Veracruz on Tuesday. They were accompanied by a message signed in the name of Gente Nueva, a faction linked to the Sinaloa Cartel. Local authorities said that the victims may include some of the 32 inmates who escaped from a prison in Veracruz state the previous day, 14 of whom were recaptured, while some reports said that the dead were members of the Zetas gang.
  • Meanwhile Mexican authorities reported the arrest of Saul Soliz Soliz, alias “El Lince,” who they say is one of the main leaders of the Knights Templar (Caballeros Templarios) drug gang. The organization emerged earlier in the year as a splinter group of the infamous Familia Michoacana, following a split between two rival leaders, and has become one of the main targets of the government in recent months. Both factions claim to follow a religious ideology, which features moral precepts and images borrowed from Christianity. According to reports, Soliz stood as a federal congress candidate for Michoacan in 2009.
  • Venezuelan politician Leopoldo Lopez, who hopes to be the opposition’s pick to run for president against incumbent Hugo Chavez in the October 2012 elections, said that the country’s authorities must respect a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that overturned a ban against him. He had been blocked from standing for public office over corruption allegations, which he claims are groundless. Chavez criticized the ruling, calling the court a tool of the bourgeoisie, while government officials asserted the right of Venezuela’s Supreme Court to override decisions by the international body, calling it an issue of sovereignty. A Time magazine blog points out that some 80 percent of those banned from public office in Venezuela in recent years have been opposition figures.
  • The Miami Herald reports on Cuba’s shut down of the operations of two Canadian companies as part of an investigation into corruption involving government ministers. Tokmakjian Group and the Tri-Star Caribbean both dealt with the Cuban government, selling goods including vehicles. One business source told Reuters that “all the foreign business enterprises in the country are on edge.”
  • The Associated Press reports that former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as “Baby Doc” is living a life of luxury following his return to the country he ruled until 1986, being “squired about the capital, attending jazz concerts and dinners.” Moves to bring Duvalier to trial for the thousands of killings and abuses carried out during his 15 years in power are currently stalled, due to newly elected President Michael Martelly’s difficulties in installing his cabinet.
  • A new report from Amnesty International details sexual abuse of woman and girls carried out by “all the warring parties” to Colombia’s conflict, and criticizes the government’s failure to take action against, or properly document, these crimes. The campaign group reports on sexual assaults being used as a weapon of war by the armed forces, paramilitaries, and guerrilla groups.
  • The man who has long been favorite for the Mexican presidency, Enrique Peña Nieto, officially declared his candidacy for the July 2012 elections. The former governor of Mexico State represents the PRI party, which held power for seven decades until 2000 and looks likely to remove the rival PAN party, which has been in office since then, from power next year. The PRI’s position is helped by Mexico’s current economic problems and the growing dissatisfaction with President Felipe Calderon’s strategy towards organized crime.
  • In Brazil, the Wall Street Journal reports on efforts in a town 60 miles north of Rio de Janeiro to boost its economy and encourage local spending by issuing its own currency, which earns discounts for users in local stores. This follows a similar scheme in the City of God favela in Rio, made famous by the film of the same name, which this month launched a local currency backed by a community bank. The district was one of the first to be occupied by elite “Police Pacification Units” (UPPs) in Rio’s drive to take slum districts back from the drug traffickers and militias who have long controlled them.

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