Ecuador’s National Court of Justice upheld a ruling on Thursday that found a columnist and three publishers of the newspaper El Universo guilty of defaming President Rafael Correa. The 2011 opinion column in question, written by chief opinion editor, Emilio Palacio and titled “No a las mentiras” (No more lies), referred to Correa as a “dictator” and criticized his handling of a police revolt in September 2010 involving a hospital full of civilians.
Correa filed suit a year ago against Palacio and El Universal publishers (and brothers) Carlos, César and Nicolás Perez and won the case. The four defendants were ordered to pay Correa $10 million each in damages and serve three years in prison, though no time has been served due to the appeal process. Carlos, who was granted political asylum by Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, said yesterday that the verdict “exposed raw corruption in Ecuador’s judicial system” and symbolized “attack on our newspaper and the sacred right of free speech” by Correa.
International human rights and free speech groups joined in the condemnation of the lawsuit, claiming that it stifles free speech and freedom of the press and intimidates political opposition. The Inter-American Press Association described the president's actions as "a systematic and hostile campaign to do away with the independent press." The Committee to Protect Journalists said the ruling against the newspaper is a "setback for democracy in Ecuador.” But Correa, who maintains a 70 percent approval rating, argues that the case is defending Ecuador against dangerous ties between big business and the news media.