The populist authoritarianism that a few years ago seemed to be sweeping Latin America is beginning to wane. Voters and politicians alike have watched the deepening economic and social disorder in Venezuela and its allies, and they sensibly concluded — most recently in Peru — that they want none of it. But in Venezuela itself, and in those countries where acolytes of Hugo Chavez took control, abuses of power and of human rights are only growing worse.
The latest evidence of this came last week in Ecuador, a small Andean nation where an erratic populist, Rafael Correa, has been faithfully imitating Chavez’s methods for concentrating power and eliminating opposition. As happened in Venezuela, Correa’s government has taken over much of the media: According to a recent report for the National Endowment for Democracy, the government cont rolled one radio station when Correa became president in 2007, but it now owns five television channels, four radio stations, two newspapers and four magazines.
Correa is seeking to destroy or silence the remaining independent media, which to his distress have taken on topics such as the hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts awarded to his brother. The president has filed one lawsuit against the authors of a book about his brother and a second against the editorial page editor and three directors of one of Ecuador’s most influential newspapers, El Universo.
Employing an archaic law that criminalizes expression “to discredit, dishonor or disparage” an “authority,” Correa demanded prison sentences and $80 million in compensation for a column in which the editor, Emilio Palacio, referred to the president as a dictator and faulted his behavior during a controversial episode in which soldiers clashed with striking police officers last year. Last week the president personally attended the trial while thuggish supporters threw eggs and bottles at the defendants outside the courthouse.
To no one’s surprise, the provisional judge hearing the case quickly ruled in the president’s favor, sentencing Palacio and the three El Universo directors to three years in prison and awarding $40 million in damages to Correa — an amount that exceeds the total value of the newspaper. The defendants are appealing to higher courts, but as the media rapporteur of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights noted, the decision “constitutes a grave warning to any citizen or media outlet that has opinions or information about public officials that could be considered offensive, thus obstructing processes that are natural and necessary in any democracy.”
Such criticism is unlikely to deter Correa, who recently won approval of a constitutional amendment setting up a media oversight panel he could use to censor and fine journalists without bothering to go to court. The conclusion offered by Inter-American Press Association President Gonzalo Marroquin was grim but appropriate: This is a “systematic and hostile campaign to do away with the independent press and establish, by law or through the courts, ownership of the truth that all the Ecuadoran people must swallow.”