REPORTING FROM QUITO, ECUADOR, AND LOS ANGELES--Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa on Monday pardoned three owner-editors and a columnist at the El Universo newspaper who had been convicted of defaming him in a controversial press freedom case.
Brothers Carlos, Cesar and Nicolas Perez and columnist Emilio Palacio had been ordered to pay $42 million in fines and serve three years in prison for publishing an allegedly libelous opinion piece by Palacio in February 2011 in the Guayaquil-based paper, the nation's second largest.
In the article, Palacio referred to Correa as a dictator and accused him of ordering authorities to fire indiscriminately at a hospital crowded with civilians during a 2010 police mutiny.
"Even though many don't want me to make concessions to those who don't deserve it, this is something that I decided in my heart to do some time ago, along with relatives, friends and close comrades, to pardon the accused and to revoke the sentences they deservedly got," Correa said during a televised speech at the presidential palace in Quito on Monday.
He added that the sentence proved three things: that the editors lied, that a newspaper is responsible for what its writers publish and that citizens shouldn't be afraid of confronting the news media.
"It showed you can prevail against abuses of media power," Correa said of the libel verdicts, which were upheld this month by the nation's supreme court. Correa said at that time that he was considering pardons, partly to keep his political programs on track.
Press freedom advocates, while acknowledging that the newspaper went overboard in its antagonistic coverage of Correa, criticized the verdicts as excessive and as having a chilling effect on freedom of expression.
Correa's pardon is the second given to Palacio in defamation cases in three years. Correa earlier had ignored a request from the the Organization of American States' human rights panel to reconsider his suit. Since the beginning of the case, Correa had said he would drop it if El Universo issued an apology, which it refused to do. Two of the Perez brothers have fled the country, as did Palacio, who sought political asylum in the U.S.
Correa also said Monday that he was dropping his suit against authors of a book called "Big Brother" who wrote that the leader knew of and tolerated his brother Fabricio's allegedly corrupt business practices. Correa has acknowledged his brother was involved in shady dealings but he said he had no advance knowledge of them.
--Cristina Munoz and Chris Kraul
Photo: Ecuador's President Rafael Correa during a news conference at the presidential palace in Quito. Credit: Dolores Ochoa / Associated Press