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

Correa lambastes press in Columbia speech

“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.