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Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa’s assault on media freedom

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ECUADOREAN PRESIDENT Rafael Correa, an autocratic acolyte of Hugo Chavez who is usually and deservedly ignored outside of his own country, will get a little attention Thursday when he hosts Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As he basks in the aura of a more notorious international pariah, allow us to recount what Mr. Correa really ought to be known for: the most comprehensive and ruthless assault on free media underway in the Western Hemisphere.

On Friday, after the Iranian’s departure, the National Court of Justice in Quito is due to hear a final appeal by three directors of one of Latin America’s most venerable newspapers, El Universo, which Mr. Correa is on the verge of destroying. In July, the paper’s three directors — brothers Carlos, Cesar and Nicolas Perez — and editorial editor Emilio Palacio were sentenced to three years in prison as a result of a defamation lawsuit brought by Mr. Correa. The editors and their newspaper were also fined a total of $40 million — enough to force its shutdown.

The “crime” that prompted the president’s lawsuit was a column by Mr. Palacio, titled “No to the Lies,” that harshly criticized Mr. Correa’s provocative behavior during a police uprising. The handling of the case by the judiciary was, alas, worthy of a banana republic. After four changes of judge, a “temporary” magistrate took over the case, held one hearing, and — 33 hours after his appointment — issued the 156-page ruling. A subsequent independent investigation determined that he did not write it, and that the author was probably Mr. Correa’s attorney.

Though Mr. Chavez, Venezuela’s president, has taken over most of the television and radio media in his country, even he has not dared to attack historic newspapers like El Universo, which was founded in 1921 in Ecuador’s coastal business capital, Guayaquil, and is widely respected across the region. Mr. Correa’s attempt to control the media has been comprehensive: The government has gone from owning one radio station when he took office in 2007 to managing five television channels, four radio stations, two newspapers and four magazines.

Journalists who dare to be critical are targeted with defamation suits filed by the president, who attends hearings and sometimes tweets rulings before they are announced. Last month, the editor of another newspaper, Hoy, was sentenced to three months in jail after he refused to name the author of unsigned articles reporting on influence-peddling by a central bank director who is Mr. Correa’s second cousin. Two other journalists face a presidential demand for $10 million in damages for a book documenting hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts given to Mr. Correa’s brother.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Correa has been criticized by the Organization of American States’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. His response has been an attempt to strip funding and powers from the office. OAS ambassadors should reject this insidious measure when it comes up for consideration this month. A more appropriate OAS action would be a review of Ecuador under the Inter American Democratic Charter.

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