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Ecuador's leader battles with the press

Court is expected to decide whether to uphold a defamation lawsuit ruling

A court in Ecuador is expected to decide on Thursday whether a leading Guayaquil newspaper defamed President Rafael Correa by calling him "a dictator" and alleging that he ordered the shooting of innocent people during a police uprising in 2010. The legal battle is being seen on a broader scale by press organizations as the Correa government cracking down on freedom of expression in the Andean nation.

Organizations such as Human Rights Watch have expressed concern that a newly impaneled National Court of Justice, whose members are expected to take the bench on Thursday, may rule in Correa's favor. In a lawsuit filed by the president, a lower court ruled that the owners of El Universo must serve three years in prison and pay Correa $40 million for libeling him.

On Tuesday, the top court was expected to issue a final decision but had to cancel the public hearing after one of its judges called in sick. President Correa also showed up for the session. "I don't want any of the parties to feel that they have been aggrieved by me because I have had to assign another person who doesn't know anything about this case," said chief justice Luis Quiroz.

Correa immediately accused the owners of El Universo of "plotting" to force one of the court's justices to phone in sick.

"They wanted to ensure that this court was not a legitimate one," the president said.

The newspaper's lawyer, Joffre Campaña, criticized the president for not accepting an apology from El Universo's owners.

"The president wants everyone to bow down in front of him," said Campaña. "No one in Ecuador should have to do this."

In an opinion column, journalist Emilio Palacios accused Correa of ordering the shootings of civilians during a police revolt in September 2010 while he was in the hospital being treated for injuries sustained during the confrontation. El Universo publisher Carlos Pérez, who later fired Palacios, offered an apology but with conditions: Pérez wanted the president to stop suing journalists, follow his own administration's law on freedom of government information and consult with the United Nations as well as the Inter-American Human Rights Court on a new communications law that is currently under study by the National Assembly, and which proposes prison sentences for all those who defame the president.

Correa had offered to withdraw his lawsuit if the publishers of El Universo issued a public apology. "If they apologize for such monstrosities why should they issue conditions?" Correa wrote on his Twitter account late Monday.

Various press organizations have called Correa's lawsuit an attack on press freedom. But the president says he is only defending his personal honor.

Palacios' column, published in February last year, referred to the police revolt, which Correa says was a coup attempt, where officers protested a proposal to cut pay bonuses. Correa, who was slightly injured in a scuffle when he went to speak to the officials, later said that they wanted to kill him. Four people were killed and more than 300 injured in the incident.

"President Correa frequently rebukes journalists and media that criticize him and has personally taken journalists to court for allegedly defaming him," said Human Rights Watch in its annual report released last weekend.

President Rafael Correa with his lawyers.
President Rafael Correa with his lawyers.
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