Jon Perdue: To Kill a Mocking Press -Correa's Coup de Grâce for Freedom of the Press in Ecuador

Alongside the chiseled names of legendary litigators throughout history, we may soon be adding the father and son team of Gutemberg and Alambert Vera, the personal lawyers of Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa.

The pair just scored another win in an unbroken string of victories for their client, the latest of which orders the two authors of the book El Gran Hermano (Big Brother) to pay $1 million each to Correa for documenting his brother Fabricio’s $600 million in illegal government contracts that a red-faced Correa canceled after they were exposed. And just after midnight last night, Ecuador’s High Court confirmed the verdict against the nation’s largest newspaper, El Universo, for an editorial that President Correa found offensive.

This High Court decision comes at the same time that a judge that was asked to preside over the El Universo verdict has fled to Panama and is seeking asylum after submitting a sworn affidavit that says that it was Gutemberg Vera, not presiding judge Juan Paredes, that wrote the El Universo decision.

Judge Monica Encalada has given a sworn declaration that, not only did President Correa’s own lawyer write the decision for the case in which Correa is the plaintiff, she was also offered money if she would preside at the hearing where the decision was to be read. Judge Encalada also testified that she was told that “el numero uno” (President Correa) likes female judges because they have “mas pantalones” than male judges, insinuating that the request was coming directly from the president.

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Just to clarify, President Correa’s personal attorney wrote the decision to jail the directors of the country’s largest newspaper, and to effectively bankrupt that newspaper with a fine of $40 million, because it wrote an editorial that the president did not like. The author of the editorial, Emilio Palacio, has fled the country and is seeking asylum in the United States.

Two of the directors of El Universo, César and Nicolás Pérez, are currently in Miami, and recently gave a press conference in which they said that they feared for their personal safety. Their brother Carlos also just announced that he has been granted asylum by Panama.

Upon hearing Thursday’s high court decision, Correa told the press, “This is going to change history.” Alembert Vera, who has often been the mouthpiece for the Correa administration in announcing new lawsuits against the regime’s opponents, told the press, "The media may write what they want from now on, but they will know there is going to be a responsibility for it. The President has reiterated he does not want, and will not take, a penny from the indemnity."

The pronouncement of President Correa’s monetary selflessness was necessary after the negative publicity from his purchase of a condo in Belgium from the $600,000 payout from an earlier lawsuit against Ecuador’s largest bank, Banco Pichincha. The bank’s $600,000 offense was to mistakenly include Correa’s name on a list of delinquent credit card holders.

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Besides suing banks, authors and journalists that criticize him, Correa has been even more forceful in trying to debunk the common belief that he is moving the country toward dictatorship. After a speech in July of last year by the head of the Inter-American Press Association Gonzalo Marroquín, Correa threatened to expel any foreigner that calls him a dictator.

"I think we have tolerated too much," Correa told Ecuador’s state-controlled press, just days after the El Universo verdict caused international condemnation. If "a foreigner arrives in a country that receives him with respect, and they say it is a dictatorship, doesn't respect laws, (they) will be expelled from the country," Correa blustered, oblivious to the irony.

For his part, Marroquín denied using the term "dictatorship" during a speech about the Correa government, although he described the regime as "intolerant" and said that lawsuits and verbal attacks against the free press could lead to "dictatorial" outcomes. His point seems now to be a distinction without a difference. Aside from demonstrating the litigiousness of a slip-and-fall artist, Correa has also pushed through a new law that gives him even more control over the judicial system. So the international condemnation that has been generated by the El Universo verdict does not appear likely to slow Correa’s lurch toward autocracy.

A multi-party contingent of Ecuadorian lawmakers that traveled to Washington late last year made the statement that, after the attacks on the rule of law by Rafael Correa, their country could no longer be considered a democracy. If the freedom to criticize is the litmus test for democracy, today's decision by Ecuador’s high court proves them right.

Jon Perdue is the director of Latin America programs at the Fund for American Studies, and is the author of the forthcoming book The War of All the People (Potomac Books). Twitter: @jonperdue

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