In the latest development of the ongoing fight between Ecuador’s media regulatory agency and newspaper El Universo, the news organization has been fined an amount equal to 10 percent of the newspaper’s average monthly revenue over the previous quarter (about US$ 350,000) for alleged noncompliance with government orders.
The Superintendency of Information and Communication (Supercom) considered that El Universo failed to comply with one of the articles of the Law of Communication (LOC for its Spanish acronym) by not publishing a reply to one of its stories with the headline demanded by the government.
“Apparently, legally harassing journalists isn't enough for Ecuadoran authorities--now, they want to write the headlines and articles too,” said Carlos Lauría, Senior Americas Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
In light of this decision and other recent sanctions handed out to news media by Supercom, press advocacy organizations have called for renewed attention to Ecuador’s controversial LOC, which created the agency in 2013.
The Inter American Press Association said the LOC is “the worst ‘gag law’ in America” and “called on the international community […] to be cognizant of ‘the flagrant abuse by the government of Rafael Correa of the public’s right to be informed and against the right to work of independent journalists and privately-owned and news media in his country.’”
Fine against El Universo
El Universo published an article on March 22 in which it exposed an alleged debt in the Ecuadorian Social Security Institute (IESS) that could jeopardize the provision of health services, according to Supercom.
President Rafael Correa criticized the story on Twitter, and said the paper did not include the government’s side of the story.
On April 17, the head of the National Communications Secretariat (Secom), Fernando Alvarado, ordered the newspaper to publish a rebuttal under Article 24 of the LOC, which establishes that anyone who feels their dignity, honor or reputation has been adversely affected by a media report has the right of response.
According to CPJ, Secom sent the newspaper a rebuttal which was written by the government’s economics minister. The headline of this story read “The IESS has progressed and will improve further in the coming years.”
El Universo published a reply on April 19, but created its own headline and did not include summaries sent by Secom, according to CPJ.
Talking to CPJ, César Pérez, one of the directors of El Universo, said the LOC says nothing about publishing headlines or story summaries provided by a government entity.
“That would be like allowing officials from the president's office to operate out of our newsroom,” Pérez told CPJ.
In addition to the recent fine, Supercom ordered the newspaper to publish the full reply sent by Secom and to issue a formal apology on its website for at least seven consecutive days.
Days before this decision, in its editorial on June 10, the newspaper said it decided to invoke "the principle of constitutional supremacy that guarantees our right to due process and the right to resistance" since it was in a “state of helplessness.”
Yet, this most recent reprimand was not the first time Supercom sanctioned El Universo since the media regulatory agency was created in 2013.
In fact, Xavier Bonilla ‘Bonil’, a cartoonist with El Universo, was the first media worker called by Supercom to respond for allegedly violating the LOC. The case was related to a cartoon published in December 2013 referring to a police raid of the home of journalist and activist Fernando Villavicencio.
The newspaper was fined 2 percent of its average earnings for a quarter and Bonil had to correct the cartoon within 72 hours. The sanction resulted from a process initiated by Correa, who later called Bonil an “ink assassin.”
El Universo and ‘Bonil’ were sanctioned again earlier this year when the newspaper published on Aug. 5, 2014 a cartoon depicting ruling party representative, deputy Augustine ‘Tin’ Delgado having troubles reading a speech at the National Assembly.
Supercom ruled that the cartoon violated the LOC by distributing discriminatory content and ordered the paper to make a public apology to the Afro-Ecuadorian organizations that filed the complaint.
Yet, El Universo is not the only news media organization to catch the attention of Supercom in the last couple of years.
Supercom reported that during its first year, the agency oversaw “162 proceedings, including complaints, inquiries and citizen requests.” The agency said it initiated 12 of the proceedings.
*Teresa Mioli assisted with reporting this story