A symbol of resistance: After closure of investigative magazine, journalists create new media outlet in Ecuador

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  • August 1, 2013

By Alejandro Martínez

The closure of the magazine Vanguardia in Ecuador at the end of June not only represented the loss of one of the few critical voices in the country -- it was also a devastating blow for the morale of the profession.

The magazine announced its closure two weeks after the country's National Assembly approved the controversial Communications Law, which created new agencies and legal provisions to sanction critical media.

In its final edition, “The Censorship of Vanguardia," the magazine's executives bid farewell to their readers and wrote that the numerous limits, controls and sanctions that the law established were something "we will never tolerate. It would be disgraceful and against the values we defend."

However, the editorial team was not ready to give up. Immediately after the magazine closed up shop, the majority of the old newsroom staffers got together to create a new media agency that will continue the mission of the magazine. In the face of an increasingly disheartening media landscape, some think that this is exactly what journalism in Ecuador needs: a symbol of resistance.

The magazine, described by the NGO Fundamedios as the only print publication in Ecuador that focused on producing investigative pieces, was known for its reports on public corruption.

The magazine published articles on high-profile topics such as the allegations of corruption against the former president of the Central Bank of Ecuador, Pedro Delgado, who is also the cousin of President Rafael Correa. Due to its constant criticisms, the magazine drew the ire of the government and suffered embargoes, fines, bureaucratic harassment and even the destruction of its archives, according to its last editorial.

The decision of magazine president Francisco Vivanco to shut down took the newsroom by surprise.  According to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), the final edition of Vanguardia was only published online because the order to print was canceled. The New York Times reported that on their last day the news team worked while locksmiths changed the door locks. The staffers, who are currently in a labor dispute with the magazine's management, were suddenly left unemployed from one day to the other.

“Imagine, it was very abrupt," said former Vanguardia director Juan Carlos Calderón in an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. “First, the project that you fought for came to an end overnight. Second, unemployment. And third, the most serious one, a media outlet that responded to the public's interests and right (to be informed) now deprived it of that right. At the end of the day, it was the government who won, because Vanguardia was a pebble in their shoe."

Calderón understood that the magazine had economic problems and that it would have been a challenge to continue operating under the framework of the new communications law, but from the beginning the group expressed disagreement over the decision to close the publication.

They did not lose time in planning the next step. Calderón said that the team immediately agreed to continue working on a new project.

For the most part the editorial team stayed the same, which included two photographers, three designers and seven reporters, including Calderón. Other investigative reporters were also incorporated.

“I think starting from scratch is hard but I believe in the skills of my colleagues. I think continuing to work together gives us a great advantage," said Calderón.

The new team has not decided yet what the name of the new outlet will be but they've already established how it will operate: instead of creating a new magazine, the reporters will form a digital news agency that will sell articles to national and international media outlets. Their focus will be on covering corruption, abuses of power and human rights, and will look for a business model that combines commercial earnings with contributions and other forms of support. The challenge now is to attract the seed capital that will allow the project to sustain itself during its first years.

For the moment the team is working with Fundamedios, which offered them a space in their offices to continue working on the investigations they left pending at Vanguardia. The non-profit has also collected enough resources to pay the reporters for three months, and recently rented an office space for the team to use as their new headquarters.

“In conversations with our board of directors we realized that it was indispensable to keep the spirit of Vanguardia from dying, because it would have been the definitive sign that reporters in Ecuador were being silenced," said Fundamedios director César Ricaurte.

Ricaurte called the new media outlet a "symbol of journalistic resistance" in a climate of hostility against the press.

“Evidently we are in a situation in which practicing journalism has become an act of irreverence in the face of power," he said. "To do good journalism in the context of the new communications law is very complicated. You definitely have to be a rebel to continue doing journalism."

According to CPJ, the Correa administration has been characterized by hostilities, lawsuits and nationally-televised messages discrediting private media and critics of the government.

The most recent blow against news organizations was the passage of the country's new communications law, which has been harshly criticized for opening the doors to arbitrary sanctions.

On one hand, the law establishes labor rights for media workers and calls for the democratization of the radio electric spectrum through the equal distribution of frequencies among private, public and community media outlets.

On the other, the law creates sanctions against "media lynching," which the law defines as "dissemination of infomation in a coordinated and reiterative manner [...] with the purpose of discrediting or harming the reputation of a natural or legal person." Many fear that the provision will allow sanctions for any media outlet that follows controversial topics.

The law also creates a series of regulatory agencies that will have ample powers to monitor, audit and sanction media.

In the month since the law passed, Ricuarte said that they are already seeing their wost fears materialize. For instance, all the recently-appointed members of the new Board of Regulation have strong ties to the ruling party, and it is expected that the Superintendent's Office for Information & Communication will not operate as an independent organism.

However, despite the bleak scenario, Calderón said he feels optimistic and enthusiastic about the new project.

“I believe that optimism is a necessary evil, it is something that needs to accompany us in this process," he said. "If we are not able to fight for what we believe in, then it is best to change careers."

“What I am seeing is a scenario where, if we don't resist and fight, we are going to leave subsequent generations with a different kind of journalism from the one we were doing. The worst thing the media can do is to censor itself and capitulate."

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.