* Rights groups say freedom of expression under threat
* Correa has been sparring with the media for years
QUITO Feb 7 Two Ecuadorean journalists
have been sentenced to pay $1 million each in damages for
libeling socialist President Rafael Correa, who faces mounting
criticism he uses courts to muzzle media.
The pugnacious Correa has been sparring with local media
ever since he took office in January 2007 promising a "citizens'
revolution" in the South American OPEC member.
He often accuses the media of spreading lies to undermine
his government and has called them "the real opposition," while
news organizations say he is trying to censor critics.
A civil court judge's sentence against Juan Carlos Calderon
and Christian Zurita stems from their publication of "Big
Brother", a book alleging Correa was aware that his older
brother, Fabricio Correa, was awarded public contracts.
In Ecuador, it is illegal for the president's close
relatives to sign such deals.
"The sum is out of proportion, is absurd and irrational ...
This is the way in which they are punishing the work of
journalists," Calderon told local media on Tuesday, adding that
the two authors would appeal the sentence.
Correa's lawyer Alembert Vera said that the sentence proved
the journalists' real goal was to defame Correa.
"This sets a very good precedent, it's a victory for
democracy, for respect, for dignity and honor," Vera was quoted
as saying in the state-run news site El Ciudadano.
While Correa says media outlets are run by right-wing
oligarchs intent on bringing him down, some foreign press
watchdogs accuse him of behaving autocratically.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists released
a report in September saying media freedom in Ecuador is in
danger because Correa is filing defamation lawsuits in civil and
criminal courts, pre-empting private news broadcasts, enacting
restrictive legal measures, and smearing critics.
"Big Brother," an investigative book released in 2010, says
Correa's popularity suffered badly when local media reported
that companies linked to his brother had oil and building
contracts with the state worth nearly $170 million.
Correa denied he knew about the deals and he ordered the
contracts be cancelled.
Ecuador's Supreme Court of Justice is expected to rule
shortly on an appeal by El Universo daily over a sentence in
which three newspaper directors and a former columnist were
ordered to pay $40 million for libelling Correa.
The ruling Alianza Pais coalition is pushing two reforms in
Congress that rights groups fear will be used to hamper freedom
One of them calls for the creation of a media watchdog that
could be used to censor journalists and a second one seeks to
restrict the kind of reports media can release about political
candidates in the months leading to an election.
Government spending on roads, hospitals and schools have
made Correa popular among the country's majority poor, but he
faces criticism that he is trying to undermine Congress and
shake up the judiciary to concentrate power in his own hands.
Correa has not yet said if he will run for re-election in a
vote scheduled for January 2013.
(Reporting By Quito Newsroom)