Ecuador's populist president, Rafael Correa, on Monday pardoned three newspaper publishers and a former columnist who had been sentenced to jail and ordered to pay 40 million dollars damages in a libel case that angered media freedom advocates.
Since taking office in 2007, Correa has been sparring with journalists whom he accuses of trying to undermine his rule of the South American OPEC member. Media critics accuse him of muzzling them and behaving like an autocrat.
I've decided to ... pardon the accused and grant them remission of the sentences that they rightly received, Correa said in a televised speech, using special presidential privilege to grant pardons.
The Ecuadorean Supreme Court earlier this month ratified the jail sentences against three publishers at pro-opposition daily El Universo for libelling Correa.
Together with columnist Emilio Palacio, they were also sentenced to pay 40 million dollars to the president - a sum that shocked global media watchdogs.
Palacio's February 2011 article, titled No To Lies, referred to Correa as the Dictator and alleged he told troops to open fire without warning on a hospital full of civilians and innocent people during a police uprising against him.
The sentence was described by media freedom advocates as a blow to democracy, but Correa in his speech depicted the tensions with privately owned media as a fight for justice.
They have been talking about a dictatorship and they were right because there's a dictatorship and there's a government that has been fighting that dictatorship, the dictatorship of the media, Correa said.
He said he also pardoned two journalists who were sentenced to pay $1 million each for libeling Correa in a book that alleged he was aware his older brother, Fabricio Correa, was illegally awarded public contracts.
The Miami-based Inter American Press Association said media freedom was still under attack in Ecuador regardless of Correa's decision.
What the Ecuadorean people cannot lose sight of is that there will continue the precedent of a president coercing his country's press with legal threats, IAPA President Milton Coleman said in a statement.
El Universo said in its online edition that it would wait until the sentences were officially dropped to make a statement on Correa's decision.