It is well known that relationship between the government of President Rafael Correa and private media outlets and freedom of expression organizations in Ecuador is tense. Lawsuits, media property seizures and bans on interviews with public officials are part of everyday life for journalists in the country.
However, the comments that Correa makes on a weekly basis through his TV program "Enlace Ciudadano" against news outlets and journalists have recently raised concerns among organizations like Fundamedios and the Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression of the Organization of American States. These groups have called the president's rhetoric a "stigmatizing discourse" that can influence citizens' perception of journalists and media outlets and galvanize the government's most passionate followers into violent behavior.
"We cannot say that President Correa or the government are promoting attacks against journalists, but it is evident that his stigmatizing discourse makes his most devoted supporters see journalists as a target," said César Ricaurte, executive director of freedom of expression non-profit Fundamedios in an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. "By being the enemies, the anti-patriots who are endangering the citizens' revolution, (journalists) become political enemies that can be targeted by anyone who considers attacking them."
Recent social media or face-to-face threats to journalists by citizens that support Correa suggest a possible correlation, specially since many of these incidents occured right after the president referred to specific reporters or media outlets in his TV appearances.
The most recent threats were against Diego Cornejo, the executive director of the Newspaper Editors' Association of Ecuador, who was recently told by a man in the street that "the citizens are keeping a close eye on you." When Cornejo asked him if that was a threat the man answered "Correa is the best president we have ever had" and left. According to Cornejo, on May 4 the president referred to him as a "car'e tuco" (a slang that roughly means "scoundrel") for comments the journalist had made regarding recent freedom of expression reports on Ecuador. Cornejo said that his comments had been edited and sent a press release with a link to his complete statement.
The case of journalist Martín Pallares, of newspaper El Comercio, is the most well known example of a member of the press who is constantly receiving threats through social networks and being attacked by President Correa. According to a report from Fundamedios, Pallares has been mentioned at least 10 times by Correa in his TV program and called "the sickly one" or "the little sickly one."
The cases of newspaper El Universo cartoonist Javier Bonilla 'Bonil' and Teleamazonas journalist Jeannette Hinostroza are also noteworthy. ‘Bonil’ was threatened on Facebook after Correa demanded an apology for a political cartoon published during his reelection campaign. Hinostroza received threats that forced her to quit her job at Teleamazonas and to withhold the last segment of a three-part investigation on some of the president's relatives. Hinostroza had previously stated in interviews that her TV program had been the object of several interruptions from the president's broadcasts and a target during Correa's weekly TV program. Even though Correa criticized the threats against Hinostroza, he said that they did not change his opinion about her, adding that she practices a "terrible journalism."
This situation was also highlighted by the OAS' Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression. In its 2012 Annual Report, the Rapporteurship's analysis on Ecuador included a section called "Stigmatizing Statements," which lists several of the expressions and accusations Correa has made against media outlets, journalists and non-profits. Phrases such as "corrupt press," "ink hitmen," "unethical journalists" and "little clowns" are part of Correa's regular language when referring to these groups in his TV program.
The Rapporteurship said it was important to create "a climate of tolerance and respect in which every person can speak his mind and express his opinions without fear of being attacked, punished or stigmatized for it." It added that "public officials have the obligation of making sure that their statements are not curtailing the rights of those who contribute to the public debate."
This perception of hostility appears to be supported by another Fundamedios' report that found that in the last five years (2008 – 2013) there have been 657 attacks against freedom of expression in the country, and the attacks against journalists, bloggers, Twitter users and other citizens continue to rise each year.
"The most serious issue of them all is that the government has minimized these attacks and threats against journalists, or denied them," Ricaurte said. "The government trivializes them by putting them at the same level as the criticisms he receives or a report that he thinks doesn't reflect the facts. And this reaction pushes these incidents toward impunity."
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.