President Rafael Correa, the leftist leader of Ecuador, took on the media on Friday at the home of one of journalism’s pinnacles, Columbia University in New York.
The school awards the Cabot Prizes, journalism’s oldest, which honor the best and most courageous reporters covering the Americas. Oh, and let’s not forget the Pulitizer Prizes.
Correa has come under fire from media watchdogs and human rights groups who say he has limited press freedom since coming to power in 2007. But the president rarely shies away from a fight, whether it is with international bondholders, oil companies or critics of his policies.
For over 45 minutes, he lambasted the press, verbally jousted with journalists and students, and even drew some applause during his speech titled: “Vulnerable Societies: Media and Democracy in Latin America”.
Lee Bollinger, the President of Columbia University and a legal expert on freedom of speech issues, drew some laughter himself, even if unintentional, with his welcoming remarks that highlighted the controversy over the media in Ecuador.
Noting some of Correa’s achievements, Bollinger mentioned the president’s reelection and said: “And today Ecuador, in Ecuador, he remains a popular and widely admired leader,” to which the audience burst into laughter.
He continued and was interrupted by more laughter in mid-sentence when he said: “President Correa has also endured widespread criticism for his treatment of Ecuador’s print and broadcast media and for policies antagonistic to freedom of speech and press, it is said.”
Bollinger said he was eager to hear Correa’s account of the serious concerns.
“Students of the jurisprudence of free expression will recognize Ecuador’s laws as another form of seditious libel. Such laws which make criticisms of government officials a crime, typically have been adopted by emerging democracies or other societies seeking to extinguish threats to a fragile political structure,” Bollinger said.
He explained how even the United States had used similar tactics, citing the Seditious Libel act of 1798 and the World War I espionage act.
“But over time we have come to see the wisdom of repudiating this course of action. Through this experience a lesson we have learned is that the impulse to forbid government criticism has always later been understood to be an epic abdication of our society’s pledge to live by reason, to confront dissent with courage and to be temperate with dealing with misbehavior,” Bollinger said.
Correa spoke in English and told the audience: “We live in a world where the media, with its media power, has tried to replace the Rule of Law with the Rule of Opinion.”
At the same time, he defended freedom of expression and faced questions from students who asked how he could rationalize the apparent contradictions in his policies. He replied that these were complex issues worthy of discussion.
Correa has a dim view of the media structure in Ecuador, and the region overall.
“In Latin America … it seems very strange that there is no jail sentence for damaging a human being’s honor, although there is jail for those who are charged with mistreating a dog,” he said.
He has sued and won a case in the local courts against an outspoken critic and three board members of the opposition El Universo newspaper.
The paper’s former op-ed editor, Emilio Palacio, has since fled to Miami saying he feared he would not get a fair hearing from the judiciary at home. He and the board members were sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay a $40 million fine over a column that criticized how Correa handled a police mutiny in Sept. 2010.
Ecuador’s penal code punishes anyone who “falsely accuses” a public official of a crime.
Carlos Lauria, senior program coordinator for the Americas at the Committee to Protect Journalists, took direct aim at the president’s policies, saying he had urged the courts to imprison journalists just because he didn’t like their opinions.
Correa’s response: “Sir, you are lying and you are a liar.”
Click here for an audio clip of the exchange