Riding a wave of popular support, Ecuador’s leftist president Rafael Correa came to power in 2007. He acted quickly to strengthen the executive branch, winning voter approval to rewrite the constitution. It came into effect in 2008, extending the president’s term limit and introduced provisions allowing greater government control over the media.

Before Correa came to power, the state controlled only one radio station. However, in 2008 a number of media outlets were seized, including two television stations. According to Fundamedios, an Ecuadorian free media advocacy group, the government uses these stations as “tools for political communication” although they are officially considered private media.

A number of the state’s critics have been taken to court, charged with criminal and civil defamation by the president and his allies. Correa insists he is battling a small group of irresponsible journalists bent on taking down his “revolutionary government” while critics say court cases are generating a culture of self-censorship. According to Fundamedios, there have been close to 400 violations of the media’s freedom of expression since January 2008.

In one prominent case, journalist Emilio Palacio was charged with criminal defamation over a February 2011 article published in El Universo, a widely circulated Ecuadorian newspaper. The story alleges Correa is responsible for crimes against humanity during a labour standoff in September 2010.

In July, Palacio and three of the owners of El Universo were sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay over $40 million in fines. President Correa called the verdict a victory and a sign that Ecuador was beginning to free itself from a “corrupt press.” Palacio has since fled the country and now lives in Miami.

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