The fight goes on for Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, who has been in a relentless donnybrook with his country’s news media almost from the day he took office five years ago.
At the end of February, he pardoned three executives and a columnist at El Universo, a leading conservative newspaper, who were sentenced to three years in jail and fined $42 million in a libel lawsuit brought by the president. But it was not a truce, Correa explained. He is no less irate at what he calls the dictatorship of the media.
“We are in a battle,” Correa said in an interview in the presidential palace last week. Comparing his campaign against the news media to Abraham Lincoln’s shutdown of newspapers sympathetic to the South during the Civil War, he said that he had set his sights squarely on the wealthy, who, for generations, have exerted economic and political power here.
“Part of that power is the communications media that belongs to the elites that have destroyed Latin America,” he said, under the gaze of a portrait of Eugenio Espejo, an 18th-century writer often considered the father of Ecuadorean journalism.
Correa’s televised anti-media tirades, his lawsuits against journalists and a new law that could handcuff coverage of elections all bring comparisons to President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Chávez, a socialist ally of Correa, has shut down Venezuelan television and radio stations that produced unfavorable coverage. Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court in Venezuela upheld a $2 million fine against Globovision, a television station aligned with the political opposition, for its coverage of a deadly prison riot last summer, which communications regulators deemed inflammatory.
“This struggle for free speech in Ecuador as well as in Venezuela is pretty basic,” said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. “It’s driven and motivated by an effort to concentrate power and to intimidate and harass critics by representing them as promoters of lies.”
In Venezuela, several newspapers carry harsh criticism of Chávez, but their circulation is relatively small. By removing a major television station from the air in 2007, Chávez eliminated an opposition voice that reached most areas of the country. By contrast, the Ecuadorian media has not been quieted and routinely savages Correa and his policies.
Correa has taken center stage on the issue.
The most recent cause for concern among journalists in Ecuador is a new electoral code that bans the news media from printing or televising material that would favor one candidate to the detriment of another. That would prevent newspapers and other outlets from endorsing candidates, which is just fine with Correa, who says that the news media should leave the business of politics to politicians.
In the United States, he says, there are liberal and conservative news outlets that create a balance. “Here the poor don’t have anyone,” he said.
But journalists say that under the new code, printing an interview with a candidate could be seen as favorable coverage, while investigating the track record of another could be interpreted as detrimental — meaning that routine election coverage could risk breaking the law.
Correa said that was not the intention.
This month a court said it had granted a request from journalists’ groups to temporarily block that section of the electoral code.
Correa’s confrontations with the news media were cast into stark relief last month with the prison sentences and huge fines that Ecuador’s top court reaffirmed in the Universo lawsuit, which the president filed, using a criminal defamation statute that has been condemned by human rights advocates as a harsh curb on free speech.
At issue was a column written by Emilio Palacio, a columnist who was also the editorial page editor, in which Palacio accused the president of giving troops permission to open fire on a hospital during a police uprising in September 2010.
The column offered no evidence to support the accusation, which Correa denied.
Correa also sued a pair of journalists who wrote a book, “The Big Brother,” about government contracts given to the president’s brother, arguing that they falsely asserted he knew of the deals. A judge ruled that the reporters should pay $2 million. At the same time that Correa pardoned the Universo defendants, he promised to withdraw the lawsuit against the “Big Brother” authors and said they would not have to pay the fine.
The defendants in both cases contended that judges could not make an unbiased decision in a case involving the president, whose influence extends to all branches of government. Correa said he exercised no influence over the judges.
Juan Carlos Calderón, one of the book authors sued by Correa, said that the press was a headache for any president, but in Correa’s case, “the remedy is decapitation.”
Rather than trying to raise media standards, Calderón said, Correa was seeking to stifle criticism.
“This entire policy has been to tame the press,” Calderón said.
Calderón and his co-author, Christian Zurita Ron, are also being sued by María de los Angeles Duarte, a minister in Correa’s government who has objected to the way she was identified in a caption in the first edition of the book. Journalists say that is an example of how other public officials are following Correa’s lead in taking an aggressive stance toward the press.
In several other cases in recent years, journalists in Ecuador have gone to jail or been fined in defamation cases involving public officials. But many journalists also acknowledge that the country’s press barons long used media properties to further their business and political interests.
A new Constitution passed in 2008 required banks to divest nonfinancial assets, including those in the media business. A new law bars anyone with more than a 6 percent stake in a media company from owning other types of businesses. Media advocates say that would weaken media companies economically.
Correa is an outsize personality in a country of 14 million people, about a third of them living in poverty, according to the World Bank. He first took office in 2007, and he is widely expected to run again in elections next February.
His government is highly popular, especially among poorer Ecuadoreans who say he has made their lives better. He has built good highways, created social support programs and tried to instill a sense of efficiency in government.
For all his criticism of the press, Correa is very media savvy. His government controls about 19 media properties, including television and radio stations and newspapers. He has taken a page out Chávez’s book by headlining a weekly town hall-style program on state television. Like Chávez, Correa frequently orders television and radio stations to carry state programming praising his leadership and attacking his critics, including journalists.
A startling amount of time during Correa’s public appearances is spent lambasting the news media. At times he can sound like a left-wing version of Rudolph W. Giuliani, recalling the former New York mayor’s sharp tongue and disdain for the press.
Many Ecuadoreans agree with Correa that the media has long reflected the interests of the country’s leading families. But they also say they were offended by the size of the $42 million award he won in court and are growing weary of his anti-media drumbeat.
“We are in agreement” with the president, said Manuela de Oquendo, 62, a clothing merchant, strolling in a Quito suburb with her husband, Galo Oquendo, 64. “But it gets tiresome, every week the same thing.”
Correa said that he would keep up the pressure on his adversaries in the news media.
“If we keep being dominated by the same powers, we will keep having the same results, people richer than in the United States and poorer than in Africa,” he said.
Credit: By William Neuman, The New York Times, www.nytimes.com; photo caption: President Rafael Correa