The Economist writes about the Ecuadorian judge’s ruling that sentences the owners and former editor of the country’s largest newspaper to three years in prison and $40 million in fines for libel against President Rafael Correa:

Freedom of the press in Ecuador
A chill descends
The Economist, July 25, 2011

For a man who calls his country’s legal system dysfunctional and corrupt, Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president, has fared remarkably well before the courts. In 2008 he won a $600,000 suit against Banco Pichincha, the country’s biggest bank, because it had erroneously included him on a list of delinquent credit-card holders. On July 20th he was granted a far larger $40m judgment in a libel case against a columnist for the El Universo newspaper and three of the company’s directors, in a ruling that free-speech advocates say will have a chilling effect on the press.

Mr Correa, Ecuador’s most popular and powerful president in a generation, has long called independent television, radio and newspapers his worst enemies. Among his harshest critics was El Universo’s Emilio Palacio. Last September the Ecuadorean police staged a mutiny, in which the president was escorted out of a hospital amid a firefight between the army and the police. Four months later, Mr Palacio wrote that the “dictator” might some day face prosecution “before a criminal court for giving orders to open fire at [his troops’] discretion and without warning against a hospital full of civilians and innocent people.” The accusation was highly questionable, since the soldiers’ commanders had told them not to shoot first. But Mr Palacio was not the first to make it, and many observers have criticised the president’s decision to start the rescue operation before having the hospital where he was trapped evacuated.

Mr Correa has often used the courts to try to silence his critics. In March he sued the authors of “Big Brother”, a book recounting his elder brother’s wildly successful business deals during his presidential term, for $10m apiece (five times the previous record-high judgment in an Ecuadorean court). This time he went even further, filing suit against Mr Palacio and the paper’s directors for $80m plus jail terms for the defendants.

Although Mr Correa is known for keeping a packed schedule, he took six hours off work to attend the hearing for the lawsuit in Guayaquil on July 19th. He was accompanied by a small crowd of supporters that pelted the defendants and their lawyers with eggs and bottles outside the courthouse. The media were barred from attending. It took Juan Paredes, replacing the intended judge who was on holiday, less than two days to read through the case’s 5,000-page file and issue a 60-page ruling. He sentenced Mr Palacio and Carlos, César and Nicolás Pérez—the newspaper’s directors—to three years in jail each, as well as granting Mr Correa half the damages he sought ($30m from the three men and $10m from the company).

An El Universo executive said after the ruling that the newspaper, with a circulation of 70,000, is worth just $35m. It will have to borrow to pay the judgment—particularly if it plans to cover the liabilities of the individual defendants, who are not nearly rich enough to pay on their own. The president called the ruling a “historic landmark” ending the media’s “reign of terror”—and then promptly had his lawyer announce that he would appeal it, in order to get the full $80m he had requested. Mr Correa says he is seeking justice, not money, and that he will donate the funds to a troubled environmental scheme aimed at preventing the exploitation of an oil field. (He did, however, keep the $600,000 from Banco Pichincha, on which he has managed to avoid paying income taxes).

The defendants say they will appeal, and do not have to pay up or go to jail until those efforts are exhausted. If the ruling is allowed to stand, however, it is sure to put Mr Correa’s critics on notice that expressing their objections too forcefully could put them out of business or send them to jail. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said the ruling was “contrary to regional freedom of expression standards” and would produce “self-censorship and a notable chilling effect that impacts not only the individuals convicted but Ecuadorean society as a whole.”