Ecuadoran journalist Martín Pallares said that for some time, executives at the daily newspaper El Comercio had been nervous about comments he made through his personal Twitter account. Yet, he never thought the situation would end with his dismissal. That day came on August 17.
On August 13, when newspaper directors gave Pallares an ultimatum to choose between his job and his activity on social networks, he still did not think it would come to this. Pallares simply did not see the latter as an option. For him, the proposal was not only "undignified" for all citizens, but especially for a journalist. To accept it would be giving up fundamental rights such as the right to freedom of expression.
As if that were not enough, during the weekend, Pallares was faced with some situations that called for him to speak against what he didn’t feel was right: one of these was a government-declared state of emergency for the whole country as a result of the eruption of volcano Cotopaxi, which established a prior censorship on the media. Also, there was the situation of Brazilian journalist Manuela Picq, who was arrested in the midst of social demonstrations in Quito. Ecuadoran authorities eventually revoked her visa.
Pallares, who defines himself as a journalist of opinion and analysis, is known for being critical of the government. It’s also known that the country’s president, Rafael Correa, frequently talks about the journalist during his weekly Saturday addresses to the nation.
Until this moment, the criticism from the President and other public officials had no major consequences.
However, on this occasion, they had had it. And on Monday, August 17, when the reporter came to the newspaper's headquarters, where he had worked for the past 13 years, ready for another day at the head of the World section, he learned that it would be his last.
Since then, he activity on the social network has been low, but he posted a change to his profile that summarize the situation well: "[they] made me choose between my job and my freedom of speech. I talked and now I'm unemployed. "
He has no regrets. First, because he is convinced that he never misused social networks, and second, because he now thinks that this was just an excuse to get him out of the newspaper. But he is especially at east because he knows that it was his duty, he feels that if you “yield” to attempts to restrict of freedom of expression in the country, the future will pay dearly.
Pallares said his problem “is part of a broad framework of harassment of the press in an atmosphere of great fear, fear of what the state can do through the Communications Law [LOC for its acronym in Spanish] and through a perverse system where the state controls much of business and trade regulations.” He continued, “The private media have been in a state of permanent nervous breakdown about what might happen. So it is very common in newsrooms to hear executives of the company and communications to call for caution, to not address certain topics that are particularly sensitive for the government. And this environment is fertile ground for self-censorship.”
Pallares accepted an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas in which he talked not only about his dismissal, but the state of freedom of expression in Ecuador.
Excerpts from that interview are reproduced below. For more, see the post on the Spanish-language version of our blog.
CK: In 2013, Fundamedios published a report called 'The case of Martín Pallares or the stigma of being a journalist' where it reported on bias against media workers, but specifically your case and the constant references that President Correa has made about you and other journalists. Does that make you feel safe, have you been assaulted or harassed?
Martín Pallares: I have not been physically attacked, there’s been no attack against my safety or my immediate family. However, I have been threatened via social networks, I receive them often. I have the feeling that Ecuadorian society is very peaceful and very kind, and this is what makes me feel relatively safe, but the possibility of my being attacked in the street while taking a bus is a feeling that is always present. That makes life more difficult than it should be…The atmosphere is not good, is quite serious, but also a good part of society supports us, there is also an important sector of Ecuadorians that cares for us, supporting us.
CK: Clearly attacks on journalists in Ecuador do not reach the levels of those in Mexico or Colombia, attacks are more virtual or judicial ...
MP: But fear exists, of course it does. There is no independent judiciary, and international organizations say that justice does not guarantee independence, we are very vulnerable, we are not protected by any institution.
But I think I'm forgetting to say that this uncertainty has also spread to social network users. A well-known case was that of 'Raw Ecuador', a user of Facebook and Twitter networks that used humor through memes, of the President, of political issues. Even once he said he was correísta. It became an obsession of the President, they established systems to find his name, in his weekly Saturday program to the nation, he exposed his identity to the public. Then this person was threatened, they sent a bouquet of flowers to a house outside of Quito where he had sent his family because of what had happened.
They give so much importance to social networks that they established a segment during the Saturday addresses to people who were critical in social networks.
CK: For years people have been speaking of the deterioration of freedom of expression in the county and not just of what is said inside Ecuador, but also international organizations. What needs to change? Does Ecuador need more support from the international community?
MP: The first thing would be to repeal the LOC, which is a perverse law that created the Superintendency [of Information and Communication] that regulates and controls and comes directly from the [power] of the Executive who has been publicly declared to be an enemy of the press. President Correa has said that the private independent press is a global problem. I think that with the LOC, minimum conditions for freedom of expression do not exist. That law is the proper tool for the denial of freedom of expression.
The international community has been more involved in issues in Venezuela or Cuba, perhaps because they are more attractive internationally. The situation in Ecuadoran is getting more attention, but I think that the international organizations should help all journalists because I am not the only one, there are others they have been critical and have been dismissed from their media outlets. I can give names like Carlos Vera, Jorge Ortiz, Juan Carlos Calderón, these are some that come to my mind. There are several who have left and their spaces for debate and opinion have been silenced. These journalists have failed to find a platform where their voice can be heard as it was in their working environments where they were at newspapers or television.
CK: So, how will conditions for freedom of expression improve in Ecuador?
MP: As political and economic crises further polarize the country, government attempts to silence it will be stronger. It will get worse, in the coming months the issue will worsen.
The only hope is to have a democratic change, through a proposal recognizing that an independent press is essential to a democratic society.
I am a bit pessimistic. President Rafael Correa is a sworn enemy, strong against independent media and critical journalists. I am one of the journalists who was repeatedly insulted and attacked by the President for the simple fact of thinking differently and having made criticisms of his government, which may be wrong, but which are part of any democratic and republican society.
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.