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Rafael Correa Dolores Ochoa/AP/Press Association Images

Careful what you write: Court imposes $40m fine after journalist libels president

A journalist at El Universo wrote a column about Ecuador president Rafael Correa which has proved very costly.

A COURT DECISION to jail three media executives and a journalist and hand down fines totalling $40 million (€27m) after a libel case brought by Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa has been condemned.

Journalist Emilio Palacio from the El Universo newspaper has been jailed along with the paper’s owners, the Pérez brothers Carlos, César and Nicolas, for three years. The four men have been fined a total of $30 million and the newspaper an additional $10 million, reports the Wall Street Journal.

In March, president Correa - a democratically elected leftist leader closely aligned to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez – sued the paper alleging a “defamatory libel” when Palacio wrote a column referring to Correa as “the dictator”.

He claimed the column also alleged that he ordered security forces to open fire on innocent people at a hospital in September 2010 during a protest by the police force. Palacio argued that he was only saying that a future president who is an enemy of Correa might say this, according to CNN.

Protesting the verdict El Universo published a nearly-empty front page yesterday with a quote from American-Russian writer Ayn Rand:

When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion; when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing; when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors; when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you; when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice, you may know that your society is doomed.

Its website front page is dominated by coverage of the decision, unsurprisingly sympathetic to the jailed men and critical of  the ruling.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York, said the ruling “sets an alarming precedent for suppressing free expression”.

Al Jazeera reports on a number of other groups who have condemned the ruling including Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The newspaper is appealing the ruling which the owners say will have a devastating effect on it. Correa will not benefit financially from the lawsuit according to his lawyer who told CNN that the money would go towards an environmental project.

AP reports that it is the second lawsuit Correa has filed against Ecuadorian journalists having previously sued the authors of a book who disclosed that €600 million of state contracts for road construction had been awarded to Correa’s brother’s companies.

Correa insists he’s fighting what he says is irresponsible journalism by media owned and run by “oligarchs” out to topple his government.

- additional reporting from AP

Read: Ecuador’s president says referendum win is a triumph for the ‘citizen’s revolution’ >

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