Ecuador moves away from media repression, but journalists continue to work cautiously: CPJ report

The repression and fear that the government of President Rafael Correa (2007 - 2017) imposed on the Ecuadorian media and journalists is apparently coming to an end after the arrival of Lenin Moreno last year, according to a recent report by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ).

Although the environment has improved, journalists are still cautious and "work with fear" as Moreno still has not complied with his word to abolish the most repressive articles of the Organic Law of Communication (LOC, for its acronym in Spanish) as well as to dissolve the Superintendency of the Information and Communication (Supercom), according to CPJ.

The report, “The U-Turn: Moreno steers Ecuador away from Correa’s media repression,” was made after a CPJ team visited the country last March and analyzes how former President Correa carried out his war against critical media and journalists, and how Moreno has shown signs of wanting to do away with the approach

Correa promoted a campaign against media and journalists including attacks through his weekly messages (sabatinas), judicial proceedings against the press, waging war on Twitter and inviting his followers along, promoting the LOC.

However, the LOC – or Gag Law, as it has been called – was undoubtedly his best weapon to intimidate critical media because it "codifying his anti-press tendencies into law,” according to CPJ.

The LOC, approved in 2013, "institutionalized repressive mechanisms, established state regulation of editorial content, and gave authorities the power to impose arbitrary sanctions and censor the press," the CPJ report continues.

One of the mechanisms was the inclusion of ambiguous legal concepts that could be used to the benefit of the Government. This is the case of "media lynching" that in practice could turn a journalistic investigation into a crime since the concept does not allow the publication of “concerted and reiterative information” that discredits a person or legal entity.

The creation of Supercom through the LOC has also been one of the biggest media problems in the country. The entity, in charge of monitoring media content and enforcing the law, has the power to initiate investigations against media or journalists, as well as impose sanctions when deemed necessary. The sanctions can range from fines to the publication of corrections or public apologies.

According to a Supercom report, after four years of creation, the entity has processed 1,081 cases. Of these, 675 ended in sanctions, CPJ added.

Millions of dollars in fines have been issued to media and journalists for different reasons such as failure to report on an issue that the entity considered to be of "public interest" or for having “unbalanced” coverage.

Thus, for example, Supercom opened an investigation against four media outlets for failing to report on the honorary doctorate that Correa received from a Chilean university during a visit to that country.

“Officials found increasingly creative interpretations of the Ecuadoran legal structure to turn against journalists,” CPJ said. “After El Universo published a photo of a political candidate at an event with his children, Supercom sanctioned the newspaper for violating the rights of children by involving them in politics, and imposed a $3,000 fine.”

CPJ highlighted the various sanctions received by newspapers El Universo and El Comercio, as well as by the networks Teleamazonas and Ecuavisa. It also highlighted the fight against the caricaturist of El Universo, Xavier Bonilla 'Bonil,' who was the first to be punished by using the LOC to force him to rectify a caricature, in an unprecedented event. From then on, 'Bonil' was sanctioned several times by Supercom.

“The climate has improved, but the norms of the Correa government are still intact,” César Ricaurte, director of Ecuadoran press freedom organization Fundamedios, said to CPJ.

For the journalists interviewed by CPJ, Supercom used the LOC the most, so they do not hesitate to point out and criticize their position as "judge and jury." According to CPJ, both journalists and members of the National Assembly "acknowledged the Supercom’s overreach" In fact, Carlos Ochoa, its former director, was dismissed and faced an investigation for his management of Supercom on March 7.

CPJ also highlighted how Correa had managed to put a significant number of media outlets under government control: five TV channels (two of them confiscated from their owners), four radio stations, two newspapers and four magazines. When he began his first term in 2007, he had only one radio station under his control.

President Moreno announced in May that the government was going to sell the media confiscated during the Correa government so that they could return to private hands, CPJ reported.

The report even gives an account of how not even the universities were free of attacks. The years of repression drove potential journalism students from this "dangerous" career, and forced some programs to be closed.

Despite Moreno's "promising" signs for changing the situation of the media and journalists, the country's economic crisis, as well as the division within the President's party, could prevent freedom of expression from becoming the most relevant issue for the country.

The murders of the three members of El Comercio newspaper allegedly at the hands of FARC dissidents, however, led to the union of society around journalistic work and its role in democracies.

In the meantime, Moreno is still showing signs of trying to change the media landscape. On May 21, he sent to the National Assembly a bill to amend the LOC that includes abolishing the Supercom, and in June he sent the body in charge of choosing Ochoa’s successor a short list of candidates. The new superintendent will have the main function of investigating the "persecution and attacks that victimized journalists and media outlets” during previous governments, CPJ added.

“Ecuador offers both a positive and cautionary example for other countries in Latin America and around the world that have increased media control and censorship in recent years. There is a path back to press freedom, and sustained international pressure can be meaningful. At the same time, it is difficult to overstate the damage that a powerful executive branch determined to destroy independent media can inflict on a country,” CPJ wrote.

“The road to rebuilding a free and independent press in Ecuador will be a long one, but journalists say they are willing to put in the work necessary to get the job done. They simply want to know whether the government is willing to do the same,” the report concludes.