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Correa lambastes press in Columbia speech

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President Correa discusses press freedom at Columbia University. (Reuters)

"Sir, you are lying and a liar." With these words, uttered before an audience of around 150 people, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa dispelled any doubt as to whether he might cool his explosive rhetoric in the face of criticism. His harsh words came in response to a critical question posed by CPJ's senior coordinator for the Americas, Carlos Lauría, after a speech on Friday hosted by the World Leaders Forum at Columbia University in New York.

That a president who routinely sues and attacks journalists in television addresses would be invited to give a talk titled "Vulnerable Societies: Media and Democracy in Latin America" at a prestigious university engendered "some amount of controversy," in the words of Columbia President Lee Bollinger in his introductory speech. The event's timing was particularly provocative as on Tuesday, an Ecuadoran appeals court upheld a criminal libel conviction against the Guayaquil-based newspaper El Universo, in which the opinion editor and three executives were sentenced to three years in prison and millions of dollars in fines. The case, which was brought by the president, stemmed from a biting opinion column published by the newspaper in February.

Neither Bollinger nor Correa shied away from this controversy in their speeches, a debate Correa categorized as a "hot topic." While Bollinger did not directly criticize the president, he did liken the circumstances of the lawsuit to the United States' historical use of seditious libel laws against the press and concluded: "The impulse to forbid government criticism has always been later understood to be an avid abdication of our society's pledge to live by reason, to confront dissent with courage, and to be temperate in dealing with misbehavior."

Correa was not so diplomatic in his address. In a near hour-long speech given in English, the president was in turn pugnacious, scholarly, and withering in critiquing the private press that he alleged "lies" and has a "lack of love for the truth."

Liars, it appears, are plentiful in Correa's vision of the world, as are "ink assassins" and "vultures"--other terms the president has used to describe journalists. At the event's conclusion, it was clear that the president has a love of political theater and bombast that rivals those of leaders he emulates in the Latin American Left.

The alleged "lie" by CPJ's Lauría was a reference to a recent CPJ report, in which the organization found that Correa brooks no dissent from the news media and has turned Ecuador into one of the hemisphere's most restrictive nations for the press. In defense of his media policies, Correa in his speech employed creative logic. In his rationale for criminal defamation penalties, Correa pondered with what seemed to be sincere wonder why in the United States "stealing a cell phone, a car, or robbing a house is penalized with prison, when stealing someone's honor or reputation, something that is even more serious, is not penalized with jail." Expanding on this argument, he gave perhaps the best one-liner of the day: "United States is a very interesting country. ... You can insult the president and nothing happens, but if you mistreat your dog, you go to jail."

In a theme throughout the address, Correa sought to frame the debate as at best a clash of cultures and at worst a product of "egocentric" tendencies or "neocolonialism," asserting that "in most Latin American countries, slander is indeed penalized with prison."

But in fact, CPJ has documented an emerging consensus in the region that civil remedies provide adequate redress in cases of alleged defamation, with Costa Rica, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico all recent examples. In another unexpected justification, the president cited a provision in the American Convention on Human Rights "Pact of San Jose, Costa Rica" that "No one may be the object of arbitrary or abusive interference with his private life, his family, his home, or his correspondence, or of unlawful attacks on his honor or reputation" as evidence that government officials are entitled to defend their honor. What the president ignored, however, was the growing body of international legal opinion, including that of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, that public officials should not enjoy protection from scrutiny.

Correa added that if only people who did not intend to zealously protect their honor ran for office then "only the worst people, those who have nothing to lose, would seek office."

The president's main argument seemed to be based on his belief that by reporting critically on government affairs the media was inserting itself as a "political actor," and was trying to "replace the rule of law with the rule of opinion." He presented these views in the accurate historical context of the Latin American media being traditionally owned by a group of elite families who in the past may have supported military coups. But Correa's outrage that the press would comment negatively on judicial decisions and his questioning of the very notion of a "fourth estate" revealed a deeper disdain for the media that goes beyond questions of history.

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Comments

Perhaps it is time for your Committee to Protect Publishers to actually tell your readers what El Universo published that resulted in Mr. Correa's successful suit. Or is it CPP's position that columnists can lie with impunity and still deserve support when a nation's laws specifically offer protection to the slandered person? Please post the offending column on your web site for all the world to see. It appeared last February in El Universo, signed by Emilio Palacio, and it was the content of that column, uncorroborated by the writer and his publishers, that led to the lawsuit. Two sets of judges now have ruled for Mr. Correa and the publishers still may appeal. While we wait for that appeal, please publish Palacio's column.

@bill. Perhaps it is time you did some research. CPJ published a lengthy report that fully describes the opinion column in El Universo, which dealt with the president's official actions. No one, including CPJ, is arguing that libel (when proved) should be given impunity. In free, democratic countries, libel is a civil matter subject to fiscal damages. President Correa wants instead to lock up people who question him. And, by the way, isn't calling someone a "liar" in a public forum a form of "stealing" someone's honor. Maybe Lauria should file suit against President Correa. Or does the president want impunity?

Carlos,
Thanks for your work. I'm just amazed that an elected leader would go around saying people should be locked up for stealing honor ... and then slander someone who asks him a question. Something is very wrong with that.

Seria bueno que el se;or Lauria visite el Ecuador y constate personalmente que todos tenemos libertad de expresarnos sin ningun problema; tambien deberia constatar la campa;a en contra del gobierno, democraticamente constituido, que ha llevado la prensa durante estos cinco a;os. No es verdad que el presidente ataque a la prensa, el Presidente se defiende de la prensa que lo ataca constantemente y trata de invisibilizar sus acciones. Por eso la popularidad del presidente es sobre el 70%. Cuando a alquien le llaman criminal de lesa humanidad, tiene derecho a defenderse en los tribunales. Palacio calumnio, por eso se fue a Miami, donde terminan todos los corruptos. Se;or Lauria, si usted es un hombre de honor, deberia venir al Ecuador y enterarse de primera mano como es la prensa en nuestro pais. Si no quedara como le dijo el Presidente Corre, como un mentiroso, que repite lo que le han contado y no ha constatado

Maria Eugenia Jativa Espinosa September 27, 2011 10:28:15 AM ET

Gracias por sus comentarios. Carlos Lauría realizó dos viajes a Ecuador durante este año. El primero fue una misión de investigación en abril de una semana. El segundo fue en septiembre para lanzar un informe (mire el link abajo) que surgió de esa investigación. En las dos oportunidades el CPJ pidió reuniones con las autoridades ecuatorianas, que nunca respondieron. Durante 2011 hemos documentado reiteradas violaciones a la libertad de expresión en Ecuador.

link: http://cpj.org/es/2011/09/ecuador-bajo-correa-confrontacion-y-represion.php

CPJ Programa de las Américas September 27, 2011 11:43:48 AM ET

Correa thinks he is above the law. Actually in Ecuador he does own the law, the assembly, the military, the police, the elctoral commision aming others. As you can see Ecuador is pretty much like Cuba as he hiomself said on his own words "Cuba has its own form of democracy". Ecuador is heading that way. No doubt about it. Correa's argument are so lame is not even funny.

The true motive behind the lawsuit against Emilio Palacio is not the article itself. It is that on September 30th 2010 Correa was in a hospital, where his security personal took him to protect from rioting policemen and recover from gases they shot him. He ordered the armed forces to rescue him since the police force scared him to death and was affraid to leave the place only with his security personnel. The order was made with any regard of other patients in the hospital. Thankfully, the armed forces commanding officers are proffesionals and did not as irrationally as requested, with tanks and heavy force. His fear was so intense that he ordered in a second command to intensify the rescue procedures. As result of those orders, other inocent pacients in the hospital were endangered and even some military were wounded and killed. The president endangered himself by showing up to the place and arrogantly treat the rioting policemen. These are facts that have to be covered. These are facts that Correa does not want to talk about. Attacking people who mention those facts is the strategy. And about the two sets of judges, was that a joke?

Eduardo Jimenez E. September 29, 2011 10:14:40 AM ET

Please let's not forget that Latin America has a long history with the media being CIA "owned", as an example, Agustin Edwards, owner of "El Mercurio" and two other minor papers 1970-1973. This fact is well documented thanks to declassified documents from the CIA.(Please see "Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner.) Perhaps Chile woulndn't have had to endure Pinochet, if Allende would have acted like Correa did. Then maybe he should copy the American way and have just "corporate own media", like we do here.

warisnottheanswer1993 November 28, 2011 4:19:03 PM ET

It is a public record how the president had control over his staff and ordered his own rescue. See sixth paragraph of fourth page on: https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=explorer&chrome=true&srcid=1405t3jT6t9OWwE-y1flLfB2GN4yF7ZAOPIK-FQ4LdeR3ZuDCA8xFSBTRfFDK&hl=en_US
which clearly states the order from Correa and paragraph 3 of the same page which states that tanks were to be used on such rescue.
What would be the effecto of tank fire against a hospital building? Who would be responsible if some inocent people dies? These are facts that no one answers yet Mr. Auza. You better start thinking by yourself instead of repeating what you are told to.

Eduardo Jiménez E. February 28, 2012 2:08:15 PM ET