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Libel case pits Ecuador's president against newspaper

By the CNN Wire Staff
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa speaking to the press following the results of his judicial reform referendum on May 7.
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa speaking to the press following the results of his judicial reform referendum on May 7.
  • Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa accuses El Universo of libel
  • An opinion column in the newspaper sparked the lawsuit
  • Both sides say they are fighting for freedom of expression
  • El Universo offers to print a correction, but Correa says it's too late
  • Ecuador
  • Rafael Correa

(CNN) -- Court proceedings began Tuesday in a high-profile libel lawsuit that pits Ecuador's president against one of the nation's largest newspapers.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is seeking $80 million in damages from El Universo newspaper and its staff. He also wants a judge to impose three-year prison sentences on the newspaper's directors and its former opinion editor.

A judge is scheduled to rule Friday in the case, which has drawn international attention from press-freedom advocates, who say Correa aims to crack down on critics by restricting the media.

Correa filed the lawsuit after El Universo published in February a column by the newspaper's then-opinion editor, titled, "No to lies." The column called Correa a dictator and claimed that the president had ordered security forces to open fire at a hospital full of civilians last September.

Correa said Tuesday that the article's claims were untrue, baseless and "an outrage," according to the state-run El Ciudadano government information website. The president told reporters that he hopes the case will set a precedent.

"This fight is for true freedom of expression," he said, a concept that he said has become "an excuse and cover for cowards who, behind an inkwell, think they can destroy others' honor."

Tuesday's court proceedings were closed to the media.

Pedro Valverde, an attorney representing El Universo, told CNN en Español that the newspaper was not given an opportunity to fully present its side.

"The process is plagued with legal inconsistencies," he said.

The newspaper remains "faithful to its principle of freedom of expression," he said, arguing that the publication's policies indicate that its directors have no influence on the content of its columns.

Emilio Palacio, the paper's former opinion editor, resigned from his post at El Universo last week, saying he was innocent but wanted the lawsuit to end.

In March he told CNN en Español that he stood by his column.

"I confirm what I wrote, every letter," he said.

On Tuesday the newspaper's directors offered to print a correction.

"Since it is impossible for us to correct assertions that were not ours -- and without being able to anticipate what correction would fit with what you are thinking -- we offer that you send us the text of the correction you demand in order to print it in El Universo, on the day and in the location that you require," they said in a letter to Correa posted on the paper's website.

"We hope that with this will end this trial," they concluded.

Correa rejected the offer, noting that the newspaper already had plenty of time to print a correction, but had not done so.

"The moment of gentlemen, of people who have ethics, has already passed," he said, according to El Ciudadano.

El Universo, an 89-year-old, family-run newspaper, is based in Ecuador's Guayaquil province.

Its website showed pictures Tuesday of what it described as a demonstration supporting the publication and criticizing Correa.

"Today it is El Universo. Tomorrow it will be you," one demonstrator's sign said.

Ecuador's government information website also showed images of a demonstration, saying Guayaquil residents were supporting Correa and his lawsuit. Protesters in a video posted on the site chanted "Corrupt press, no more!"

Press-freedom advocates have criticized the case and other recent efforts to regulate media in Ecuador.

In a statement Tuesday, the Inter American Press Association criticized "the ongoing harassment of the Ecuador's independent press through excessive and disproportionate legal suits by President Rafael Correa."

The Committee to Protect Journalists also weighed in on the libel lawsuit shortly after Correa filed it.

"Ecuador's outdated criminal defamation provisions have been systematically used to punish critical journalists," the New York-based organization said in a March statement.

CNN en Español's Fernando del Rincon contributed to this report.