Ecuador's President Rafael Correa holds up a copy of the opposition newspaper El Universo during a meeting with international press last November. No other country in Latin America is moving so fast and on so many fronts to restrain the media as Ecuador, press freedom advocates say. (Dolores Ochoa/AP)

Reporters are frequently assassinated in Mexico, and a populist government in Venezuela has driven some journalists into exile. But press freedom advocates say that no other country in Latin America is moving so fast and on so many fronts to restrain the media as tiny, banana-producing Ecuador.

President Rafael Correa, an American-educated leftist economist who has forged close alliances with Cuba and Iran, has filed a defamation lawsuit that might put the three directors of the country’s largest newspaper in jail and shutter their 90-year-old paper. The government has cobbled together a framework of laws and constitutional revisions to limit press independence, free expression groups say, while building a media conglomerate to disparage critics and counter independent media reports.

A bitter quarrel

“Ecuador is moving faster than anywhere else to restrict free expression,” said Cesar Ricaurte, director of the Andean Foundation for Media Study and Observation in Quito, Ecuador’s capital. “There is the discourse that leads to aggression, there are the lawsuits, there are laws to muzzle. And you also have a powerful propaganda system.”

The increasingly bitter quarrel between journalists and Correa would have gotten little notice beyond the country of just 14 million people on South America’s northern cone.

But Correa has also become an increasingly outspoken and active foe of the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous branch of the Organization of American States that he accuses of being in lockstep with U.S. policy.

The 48-year-old president has been particularly infuriated by the work of the commission’s free expression advocate, Colombian constitutional lawyer Catalina Botero. Her office has documented Correa administration aggressions against the news media and participated in a public hearing in Washington in which Ecuadorian journalists aired their grievances.

“They treat us the same as dictatorships,” Correa said in a December summit of Latin American leaders in Venezuela, where he dedicated a 26-minute speech to the media and Botero’s office. “We are fighting, friends, against an immense power.”

At Correa’s urging, the ambassadors to the 34 countries of the OAS, including the United States, will debate a series of proposals on Wednesday in Washington that could weaken the commission and Botero’s office, which issues a long annual report critiquing all OAS member states.

“What is happening is grave, very grave, because in effect it is an attempt to debilitate the commission, because what it says bothers them,” said Santiago Canton, an Argentine who heads the commission.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch, said Correa’s efforts would have had little traction except that the commission’s work investigating rights abuses has not only irritated countries such as left-leaning Venezuela and conservative Colombia but also the region’s power broker, Brazil.

“Countries as ideologically different as Colombia and Venezuela have found common cause in their aversion to the commission’s criticism of their human rights practices,” said Vivanco. “And then you add to this the giant of Brazil.”

E-mails and calls to Ecuadorian ambassador to the United States Nathalie Cely and the country’s representative to the OAS, Maria Isabel Salvador, were not returned.

Correa, though, frequently talks publicly about his policies toward the media and assesses individual reporters, taking to the airwaves to single them out as shills for powerful interests and to belittle them as “corrupt,” “liars,” “ignorant” and “unethical,” according to research by Carlos Lauria, senior Americas coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

“The lack of objectivity, the absence of contextualization and biased information are, to say the least, pathetic,” Correa said in a speech at New York’s Columbia University this past fall. “We are not intolerant of the media. What we don’t tolerate are their lies.”

Popular and buoyed by a congressional majority, Correa and his allies won support for a new constitution in 2008 that gave the government more regulatory power and opened the door to state restrictions by compelling “truthful, verified, timely” press reports.

More recently, broadcast media owners have been barred from having other businesses under a new law, while plans are in the works to create a press regulatory body that would be largely controlled by the president’s office. The Committee to Protect Journalists describes a government so obsessed with the media that the state frequently commandeers the airwaves so government spokesmen can refute news programs, often in the middle of those reports.

Jeanette Hinostroza, whose reporting on the Teleamazonas television station is often cited by government officials as unethical, has been interrupted by the official rebuttals.

In an interview, Hinostroza said she is also hamstrung by fear of a defamation suit by Correa or other public officials. “If before I was very careful about information, now I am double and triple and quadruple careful to check things,” she said. “Because I am afraid. I know they can ruin me.”

Indeed, such suits by public officials, though out of favor in several Latin American countries, have increased in Ecuador, said Lauria of the Committee to Protect Journalists. The motive is to squelch dissenting voices, said Lauria, explaining that such viewpoints are also “met with claims of conspiracies and charges of the oligarchs pulling strings.”

Correa, in his speech at Columbia University, suggested that his “honor” had been stolen by the media and asked why reporters should not be jailed for defaming him.

Journalists face jail

Last year, in Correa’s biggest win, a judge ruled against a columnist at El Universo, Emilio Palacio, who had written that the president was “a dictator.” The judge sentenced Palacio and El Universo’s three directors to three years of jail and ordered that the paper pay $40 million in damages So far, appeals by the Perez brothers — the three owners of El Universo — have failed.

“We don’t have the money,” said Cesar Perez, a top editor at the paper. “This puts this property at risk, and could wind up in his hands. This would be horrible, a very, very hard blow for this institution.”