Declaring victory over what he called a “media dictatorship,” Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa said on Monday that he would pardon three newspaper executives and a columnist who were sentenced to three years in prison in a libel case.
Speaking in Quito, Ecuador, Correa also said he would forgive US$42 million in fines levied against the men and the newspaper, El Universo, the country’s leading opposition daily.
Correa has been engaged in a running battle with the media since he took office in 2007. Press-freedom and human-rights groups say he has created a climate of intimidation to quash criticism of his government, but Correa says he is fighting an entrenched media establishment biased in favor of the wealthy interests that own and control media companies.
“The abusive press has been defeated,” he said, speaking in an ornate room of the presidential palace, with Ecuador’s flag behind him, flanked by soldiers standing at attention in dress uniforms and decorative helmets.
Correa sued El Universo over an opinion article by Emilio Palacio, a columnist and the editorial page editor, which called him a dictator and accused him of giving troops permission to fire on a hospital full of people during a police uprising in September last year.
Correa denied giving the order and said the article was an example of the way the press has trampled on the truth to attack him and his government.
The courts ruled in favor of the president and this month the nation’s Supreme Court upheld the sentence of three-year prison terms for the defendants and the hefty fine.
Correa had previously hinted he would pardon the men.
“We never sought to bankrupt anyone or take anyone’s money,” he said. “The only thing we were seeking was the truth.”
Palacio said in an interview from Miami that pressure from other governments and human-rights and press-freedom groups in Ecuador and other countries had forced Correa to grant the pardon.
“It is a triumph for the freedom of expression and democracy,” he said.
Palacio fled to Miami this year and is seeking political asylum from the US government.
The other defendants included three brothers who run the newspaper. Two of the brothers have left the country and a third took refuge this month in the Panamanian embassy in Quito after the Supreme Court upheld the prison sentence.
Correa also said that he would drop a case against two other journalists who had written a book exposing government contracts given to his brother.