* Correa says daily tried to destroy his reputation
* El Universo lawyer says Correa attacks independent media
* Rights groups say freedom of expression under threat
QUITO, Feb 16 Ecuador's highest court
early on Thursday upheld a ruling sentencing three newspaper
directors to jail and setting damages at $40 million for
libeling leftist President Rafael Correa.
The combative 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 privately owned television networks and
newspapers of spreading lies to undermine his government and has
called them "the real opposition," while news organizations say
he is trying to censor critics.
"Thank God that the truth has prevailed and we've been
allowed to overcome this tough challenge successfully," Correa
told reporters, after accusing El Universo of orchestrating a
campaign to destroy his reputation.
The original ruling last year sentenced columnist Emilio
Palacio and three owners at El Universo to three years in prison
and set payment of $40 million in damages to Correa over a
column criticizing Correa's handling of a police revolt in 2010.
Palacio's February 2011 opinion column titled "No To Lies"
referred to Correa as "the Dictator" and alleged he ordered
troops to open fire "without warning on a hospital full of
civilians and innocent people."
Thursday's ruling by the Supreme Court was issued shortly
after midnight, and it applied only to the sentence against the
newspaper directors. It was the first high-profile sentence
issued by the newly appointed court, which was selected amid
complaints from opposition lawmakers that some of the chosen
judges had ties with Correa's party.
Correa, 48, attended the hearing, which lasted for over 14
hours, while outside the courthouse his supporters clashed with
journalists and citizens protesting that the socialist leader is
curbing media freedom.
Correa sympathisers ripped up copies of El Universo, while
critics held banners that read "Say no to dictatorship."
El Universo's lawyers have argued that the original sentence
was out of proportion and accused Correa of pressing judges to
get a favorable ruling.
"It's obvious that the President has a very clear goal, to
finish with independent media, not only in Ecuador, but he also
wants this to reverberate all over America," Joffre Campana, a
lawyer for El Universo, told reporters.
The ruling will likely draw strong criticism from rights
groups, which have slammed Correa's hard stance against the
media for months.
"This shortsighted ruling will only keep Ecuadorean
journalists from investigating powerful politicians; it
represents a serious setback for democracy in Ecuador," the
U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement.
Correa is highly popular thanks to high government spending
on roads, hospitals and schools, and his government has not
faced the kind of widespread social protests that forced three
presidents to step down in the decade before he took office.
But he has come under fire for undermining Congress and the
judiciary to concentrate power in his own hands, as well as for
his constant attacks against the media and for his hardball
A civil court judge last week sentenced two journalists to
pay $1 million each for libeling Correa in a book that alleged
that he was aware his older brother, Fabricio Correa, was
illegally awarded public contracts.
(Reporting By Jose Llangari, Alexandra Valencia and Eduardo
Garcia; Editing by Philip Barbara)