Story highlights

An appeal hearing is called off when a judge doesn't show, citing illness

A lower court judge has ruled that $40 million must be paid to Ecuador's president

Newspaper director offers to apologize, if Rafael Correa meets three conditions

The dispute started when an opinion column in February called Correa a dictator

Quito, Ecuador CNN  — 

A court suspended a hearing Tuesday in a libel lawsuit that pits Ecuador’s president against one of the nation’s largest newspapers.

The highly anticipated appeal hearing in the case was called off Tuesday morning when one member of the three-judge panel did not show up, citing illness.

The cancellation of Tuesday’s hearing means a new panel of judges that takes the bench later this week will weigh an appeal from El Universo newspaper.

The publication is asking judges to overturn a July ruling that awarded Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa $40 million and sentenced the directors and former opinion editor of El Universo each to three years in prison.

The case has drawn international attention from press-freedom advocates, who say Correa aims to crack down on critics by restricting the media.

The dispute started in February, when El Universo published a column by the newspaper’s then-opinion editor, titled, “No to lies.” The column called Correa a dictator and claimed that the president had ordered security forces to open fire at a hospital full of civilians in September 2010.

Correa filed a libel lawsuit, saying the article’s claims were untrue, baseless and “an outrage.” He told reporters that he hoped his libel lawsuit would set a precedent.

Hundreds of his supporters gathered outside the National Court of Justice before the scheduled start of Tuesday’s hearing. Nearby, another group chanted slogans criticizing the government for cracking down on free expression.

Correa’s attorney, Alembert Vera, said the cancellation of Tuesday’s hearing was part of the newspaper’s strategy to delay the case.

Evaluating the case should be simple, he said.

“The only thing they have to review are the sentences … that are no more than 70 pages in total,” he said.

On Monday, El Universo’s director said the newspaper was prepared to make a public apology to Correa if he committed to three things: withdrawing lawsuits against journalists, complying with the country’s public information access law and consulting with the International Court of Human Rights and the United Nations about a proposed communications law.

Correa rejected the offer.

“If apologies are requested, it is because they made an error. And he who made a mistake, what right does he have to set conditions? It is unacceptable,” he said.

Cesar Ricaurte, director of the Andean Foundation for Media Study and Observation, said the newspaper’s request was reasonable.

“They are conditions that any democratic government should meet without demands of any kind. They should be part of the democratic agenda of any government,” he said.

At Tuesday’s hearing, a judge suggested that the newspaper and the president try to resolve the dispute through mediation.