* Correa says fighting ‘media dictatorship’
* Rights groups accuse him of undermining media
* Court case stems from column calling him dictator (Adds comments from media watchdog)
By Eduardo Garcia
QUITO, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Ecuador’s leftist 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 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 Andean country’s Supreme Court earlier this month ratified the jail sentences against three publishers at pro-opposition daily El Universo for libeling Correa.
Together with columnist Emilio Palacio, they were also sentenced to pay $40 million 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.
Correa, 48, has quarreled with foreign oil investors, local banks, telecommunications companies, the U.S. government and the Catholic Church.
He says his “citizens’ revolution” redistributes power among the poor majority and weakens a political elite bent on sharing power and wealth among themselves in the resource-rich nation.
Correa remains popular thanks to high government spending on roads, hospitals and schools. 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.
Critics say that like his allies Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, Correa has undermined Congress and the judiciary to concentrate his power.
Although he has not said if he will run for re-election next year, he is well positioned to win the February 2013 vote given that the opposition is divided and lacks a charismatic leader. (Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Peter Cooney)