Last Wednesday, Ecuador’s Supreme Court upheld sentences handed down in July 2011 for four members of the El Universo newspaper’s staff in the latest chapter of a lengthy and controversial trial. Three of the newspaper’s directors, Carlos, César, and Nícolas Perez, and an editorialist, Emilio Palacio, face three years in jail and $40 million in fines. All have fled the country or sought asylum abroad, and many expect that the fines (if collected) will bankrupt the 90-year-old periodical.
The February 2011 article that incited the controversy, entitled “NO a las Mentiras” by Emilio Palacio, alleged that during the September 2010 uprising Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa ordered troops to fire on a hospital filled with unarmed civilians. President Correa vigorously denied these claims and filed a libel suit in March 2011. He claims that the defendants are part of a powerful private media aiming to undermine his government and said a court victory “would represent a great step forward for the liberation of our Americas from one of the largest and most unpunished powers: the corrupt media.”
The case has been a messy back-and-forth, full of demands for written retractions, refusals of retraction offers, and accusations of judicial corruption—capturing the attention of international human rights organizations and free press advocates. Newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post have published highly critical op-eds on the case, saying that Correa is conducting “the most comprehensive and ruthless assault on free media under way in the Western Hemisphere.”
This is just one of several clashes between Correa and the press. This month Ecuadorian journalists Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita were both fined $1 million for their book, Gran Hermano, which detailed government contracts given to Correa’s brother Fabricio. The government recently passed a law that bans the media from “either directly or indirectly promoting any given candidate, proposal, options, electoral preferences or political thesis, through articles, specials or any other form of message.”
Ecuador isn’t the only Latin American country with tense government-media relations. Hugo Chavez’s battles with opposition-leaning television and radio stations are well-known, and the Kirchners of Argentina have had legendary fights with long-standing newspapers Clarín and La Nación. President Cristina Kirchner recently nationalized the only domestic supplier of newsprint (leading many to worry that this will increase the state’s influence over these news outlets).
Granted, in some places and cases the press hasn’t been guilt free. In many countries it is concentrated in a few hands, and those individuals have at times chosen to present biased views of politicians and events. These aggressive attacks on ideological opponents have not fostered a more open and inclusive society.
What is true is that a strong, independent, and responsible media is vital for Latin America’s democratic future. The challenge now is to both encourage and enable the press to play the role of watchdog. To become substantive (versus just electoral) democracies, Ecuador and other nations must think beyond the ballot box.