(CN) – In the ongoing battle between Ecuador’s president and much of the country’s media, newspapers throughout the nation published a petition on Sunday saying the President Rafael Correa is attacking freedom of expression and undermining the nation’s democracy.
Published in 22 newspapers, the petition follows a vote last month on measures pushed by Correa creating a government panel to regulate media content and a parallel set of measures to control the nation’s judges, through the creation of a judicial appointments commission and a council to consider further changes in the courts.
Ecuador’s president is an American-trained economist who for the last five years has dominated politics in the Andean nation that sits astride the equator from which the country gets its name. Upon coming into office, Correa shortened presidential addresses greatly and adopted the smooth and personal delivery of a modern politician.
But he also moved to control the professions, imposing licensing and accreditation requirements, and pushed measures through the ballot box that strengthened his political power. He then kicked out the American military by terminating the lease on an airfield in the northwest part of the country, and last month sent the American ambassador packing over a leaked diplomatic cable.
Correa is often compared to Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, in the substance of his policy and in the steady pressure to increase presidential power while weakening opponents and attacking detractors. He has expropriated two television stations and started a state-owned channel, Ecuador TV.
Correa has also taken on some of the the nation’s leading newspapers, most recently El Universo, the biggest opposition newspaper in Ecuador.
The newspaper had published an editorial saying he had told security forces to direct fire at a hospital during a police rebellion in the nation’s capital, Quito, last year. The hospital was the site of a battle between the local police and security forces.
Correa filed suit earlier this year against the paper, an editor and members of its board of directors for criminal libel, asking for prison terms.
A second suit, also aimed at a writer for El Universo, resulted in a three year prison sentence for the writer last year, over an article on the high default rate for micro-credit loans. The suit was brought by the head of the agency handling the loans, Camilo Saman. Saman later withdrew his suit, and the defending writer, Emilio Palacio, argued that the force behind the suit all along had been the president.
Sunday’s petition was published under the heading of the Ecuadorean Association of Newspaper Editors. “We believe the agressions of the government seek to cut liberty of expression among the citizens, a fundamental guarantee in the democratic system,” says the petition.
The association declares its support for the editors and reporters of El Universo, saying the president has converted his powers of communication into “instruments of propoganda and governmental persecution.”
“We call on the government to put limits on the politics of intolerance agaist independent publishers,” says the petition, “and warn the citizens to be vigilant that their rights are not run over.”