QUITO, Ecuador (AP) – An Ecuadorean judge ordered two journalists to pay $1 million each to President Rafael Correa, finding them guilty of defamation for reporting that he knew about contracts his older brother had with the state.
Quito Judge Mercedes Portilla levied the fines against Juan Carlos Calderon and Cristian Zurita on Monday in a case brought by Correa over their 2010 book “The Big Brother.”
The two said they would appeal. Calderon called the ruling “a way of punishing the work of journalism.”
Press freedom advocates have accused Correa of using a friendly judiciary to try to silence critics in the media.
In the best-known such case, Correa won a criminal libel judgment last July against three directors and a columnist at the newspaper El Universo in which all four received three-year prison sentences and the trial judge levied a total of $42 million in fines. The ruling is being appealed to Ecuador’s highest court.
Portilla said in her decision, which The Associated Press obtained Tuesday, that Calderon and Zurita offended Correa’s “honor, dignity, good name (and) professional prestige within the country and abroad” by reporting that he knew of $600 million in contracts between the state and companies associated with his older brother, Fabricio.
Correa denied being aware of the contracts from the moment the two journalists first reported on them in the newspaper El Expreso in 2009.
He subsequently canceled all the contracts, which were primarily for road construction. Ecuadorean law prohibits a close relative of a president from having such business interests.
Calderon called the payments ordered by Portilla “absurd (and) irrational” given that Correa “did not present a single piece of evidence.”
Speaking at a news conference, Zurita said, “The president needs to understand that if he thinks he has won he is mistaken.”
Correa’s lawyer, Alembert Vera, was quoted by the official Andes news agency as calling the verdict “a triumph of democracy, of respect for dignity and honor.”
He said it shows that journalists “lie and spread falsehoods for profit.”
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