The publisher of an Ecuadorian newspaper has fled to seek political asylum after that country’s top court upheld jail sentences and a $42 million fine for three newspaper executives convicted of defaming President Rafael Correa, according to Reuters.
The judgment was issued shortly after midnight today. The news agency said the ruling drew strong criticism from human rights organizations, which have long accused Correa of seeking to muzzle the free press and discourage journalism.
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The Associated Press reported that Correa was considering pardons and quashing the fines as the judgment was enough.
Correa, 48, has fought with the media since taking office in 2007, accusing privately owned media of lying to undermine his government, according to Reuters.
The newspaper at the center of the dispute, El Universo, reported today that Panama had granted political asylum to one of the three publishers who was within the Panamanian Embassy in Quito, according to Reuters.
The AP said Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli had announced today that he was granting political asylum to El Universo's director, Carlos Perez.
The dispute was lodged over a February 2011 column by titled “No To Lies”and written by Emilio Palacio who called Correa “the Dictator” and accused him of ordering military forces to open fire “without warning on a hospital full of civilians and innocent people.”
Speaking with the press, Correa hailed the judgement.
"This will lead to real freedom of expression, to real democracy," Correa was quoted as saying by Reuters, adding that it would "put an end to one of the worst things in America: the abuses of the corrupt media, and the lies that they constantly say."
In a statement carried by the AP, Perez said: "People should be under no illusions about what the impact of this case will be: It already has had a chilling effect on what Ecuadoreans can say and report.”
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In a statement released in New York, the Committee to Protect Journalists said: "This shortsighted ruling will only keep Ecuadoran journalists from investigating powerful politicians; it represents a serious setback for democracy in Ecuador."