Attacking journalists in the original banana republic


President Rafael Correa

When press freedom is deteriorating in a country, there’s often one unmistakable sign of that downward slide: the use by the government of criminal defamation laws.

There have been well-aired concerns about the attempts by the Hungarian and South African governments to curtail news media. Less attention has been devoted to the steadily worsening situation in Ecuador, the country which gave the world the phrase “banana republic”. They grow a lot of bananas, do not always change governments by election and now the news media are under attack.

Coups have removed and installed presidents regularly and in 2010 there was a what Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa called an attempted coup. Correa, a politician with a sense of drama, complained that he had been held prisoner in a hospital by striking policemen and had been rescued amid rioting and fighting by the army. The exact truth of the events remains disputed.

Emilio Palacio, writer on one of the country’s major dailies, El Universo, wrote a column accusing Correa of ordering soldiers to open fire on the hospital when there were patients in the building and accusing the president of lying about what had happened. Last spring, criminal defamation charges were brought against four of El Universo’s journalists. After proceeding involving peculiar delays and changes of judges, three writers were sentenced to jail terms and fined a total of $30m.For good measure, the newspaper was fined $10m. An appeal is to be heard tomorrow.

This was Correa’s second legal case against critics. He then embarked on a campaign of discrediting his opponents in the media, broadening the attack beyond one newspaper and its writers. Correa’s war against the media has made headlines in the Spanish-speaking world. Time that this unsavoury campaign received wider attention.


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