QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — An Ecuadorean judge sentenced three newspaper directors and a former columnist to three years in prison Wednesday for libeling President Rafael Correa in a column that questioned an army raid to rescue him from striking policemen.
The court also fined the four a total of $30 million and levied an additional $10 million fine against El Universo, Ecuador's main opposition newspaper.
Regional and international press freedom groups have protested Correa's libel suit against the newspaper, saying it was part of an effort to muzzle the media in the Andean nation.
Alembert Vera, a lawyer for Ecuador's leftist president, lauded the ruling as a blow for responsible journalism, saying he had communicated the decision to Correa.
Correa received the news "with great happiness because it is a historic moment. From now on any citizen can demand that their good name and honor be respected, which is true freedom of expression," Vera said.
The author of the column, Emilio Palacio, called the sentence "a barbarity."
"We will immediately ask for the ruling to be annulled and at the same time we will appeal it," he told Radio Sonorama. "With an appeal we will go to a second instance and there is still a third instance."
"I don't know if I'll have to run ... ," he said. "If I have to go to prison I might run or I might go to prison. When there is a dictatorship one has to see how one can survive, how to avoid having one's head chopped off, because this is what the dictatorship wants to end freedom of expression."
Palacio's Feb. 6 column was titled "No to the Lies" and referred to Correa as "the Dictator."
The column said Correa "ordered discretionary fire — without prior notification — against a hospital full of civilians and innocent people" during the Sept. 30 police revolt over government plans to cut police benefits.
Correa had taken refuge in the hospital after confronting demonstrators who roughed him up. Government officials called in soldiers to rescue the president from armed insurgents who they say had surrounded the building.
It was the second lawsuit filed by Correa against Ecuadorean journalists.
In February, he sued two journalists who disclosed in a book titled "The Big Brother" that companies owned by the president's older brother, Fabricio Correa, had won $600 million in state contracts, primarily for road construction.
Ecuadorean law bars presidents' relatives from using their family relationships for financial gain, and Rafael Correa canceled the contracts when their existence became public.
Contrary to the book's claims, Correa says, he had been unaware of the contracts. His lawyers say his lawsuit is seeking $5 million from each author.
Another move that upset press freedom advocates was Correa's decision to add a proposal to a May 7 referendum about restricting news media ownership and creating a government oversight panel that would regulate news media content for "excesses." Ecuadoreans backed that and the nine other proposals on the referendum.
The director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Joel Simon, wrote a letter to Correa on April 18 expressing "deep concern about Ecuador's commitment to freedom of expression." He said the oversight panel in particular "would open the door to government censorship."
Correa insists he's fighting what he says is irresponsible journalism by media owned and run by "oligarchs" out to topple his government.