Ecuadorian government tightens its grip on the press as private media fears for survival

By Dylan Baddour

An upcoming vote that could alter the laws governing mass media in Ecuador has stoked fears in the Andean nation that the end of a free press in near.

The constitutional court recently declared that the National Assembly could bypass a public referendum to decide if the 2013 Communication Law - which would categorize media as a “public service” subject to government regulation - will become part of the nation’s constitution.

According to critics, the proposed constitutional amendment represents a turning point in the gradual dismantling of critical journalism establishments in Ecuador while free press advocates worry that the decision could pave the way for a state media monopoly, a trend reflected by some of the leftist nation’s regional allies.

Privately-owned media companies have already been weakened in the seven years under Rafael Correa’s "citizens' revolution." The president has consistently berated private media in the country, accusing them of serving the interests of wealthy owners to the detriment of the people.

But journalists say the executive leader is looking to silence dissent and further control the country’s press, which has become less critical of the government in recent years.

“At this time, there are few private media who resist and maintain a certain independence. But they are growing increasingly isolated these days,” said César Ricaurte, director of the Andean Foundation for Media Study and Observation, Fundamedios, in an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. “There are very few independent media with a critical view of the government.”

Ricaurte added that the Communication Law - with 119 articles spread across 24 pages - is being used subjectively to sanction publications that challenge the official line, pressuring them to revise their content. It speaks to the fact that the most critical media outlets in Ecuador have already closed their doors. The 34-year-old daily newspaper Hoy, known to be critical of the government, stopped printing in June. It was the latest and largest of five major Ecuadorian newspapers that have folded in recent years.

“It’s a situation where an authoritarian system is consolidating itself,” said Diego Menacho in an interview with the Knight Center.  “Our perspective is that they are looking to make some media outlets disappear. And Hoy has already disappeared.”

Menacho is the director of the Ecuadorian Association of Newspaper Editors and in 2007, he ended a 20-year career as the sub-director of Hoy. He said the paper went bankrupt after the government revoked contracts, intimidated advertisers, blocked their line of credit, alleged tax violations, and prosecuted journalists under the recently minted Communication Law.

As dissenting voices are eliminated from the media landscape, the Correa government has simultaneously grown its holdings. In November 2013, Fundamedios reported that the Ecuadorian state owned 21 media outlets, though Ricaurte said that the number has since grown to 30. The report also outlined heavy government spending on pro-administration publicity, especially during Correa’s weekly talk show, when the president is known to deride the misgivings of the private press.

“There has never been, in Ecuador’s recent history, a government that’s had a policy that so frequently harasses the private media,” Ricaurte said. “The president has signaled that the existence of private means of communication is a problem. And this problem has to be solved by applying a constant politic of pressure against the private media.”

On a Nov. 2 broadcast, Correa spitefully shredded a copy of the newspaper La Hora, denouncing a headline that was critical of a national court decision. He called it a lie, and attributed it to the “corrupt press” advancing an agenda “for the benefit of their banker candidate.” The rip-and-ridicule spectacle, however, is nothing new. The occasion marked the sixth time that Correa has torn up a newspaper on national TV since 2011.

Menacho forecasts that La Hora, long a target of presidential tirades, will also close within months. And, like publications before it, that it will exit the scene with scant public protest. This may be due, in part, to the fact that Correa has never masked his distaste for the press, nor his intention to subdue it as part of the “citizens revolution” he brought to office.

“There’s very little collective reaction,” Menacho said. “There’s a lot of indifference and a lot of fear in the country.”

In many ways, the actions of Rafael Correa are not surprising. The United States-educated professor of economics won the endorsement  of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in his run for executive and in 2006, he took office promising a transformation of Ecuadorian society.

In his first year in office, he dismissed most of the nation’s foreign debt and held a referendum that allowed him to successfully rewrite the constitution, expanding state economic control and lengthening the two-term limit placed on presidents. By the end of 2008, the Correa government had taken control of one of Ecuador’s oldest newspapers and two privately-owned TV channels. The administration has also closed a radio station.

In the beginning, it appeared that Correa had support. According to a Washington Post report from 2007, the majority of Ecuadorians supported the earliest media seizures, citing resentment towards their billionaire owners.

But international watchdogs raised their eyebrows, and as other left-wing leaders came to power in Nicaragua and Bolivia, Argentine publication La Nacion accused Correa and Evo Morales, in Bolivia, of following in the steps of the “war declared by Hugo Chávez” against the press.

In 2004, after accusing the private media of organizing a failed coup in 2002, Hugo Chávez passed legislation that would govern the media and force critical radio stations, TV networks, and newspaper to close.

By many measures, Correa followed suit. A 2008 report by the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, a post commissioned by the Organization of American States (OAS), Correa “favored ‘severe and profound’ legal reforms to regulate the press and avoid an ‘incestuous’ relationship between the communications media and financial interests.”

England’s The Guardian reported in October 2009 that the policy “include[d] dismantling the institutions of the so-called ‘establishment’, media included, that he blames for having dragged Ecuador to political decadence in the decade that preceded his ascension to the presidency.

In 2009, Ecuador also became a member of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), a leftist political and economic alliance founded by Hugo Chavez and named for Simon Bolivar, the heralded liberator of South America.

The political bloc, including Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, among others, has adamantly defied the concerns of international press watchdogs while they continue to purge independent voices from the media.

“Now, without a doubt, the ALBA countries have an agenda that includes confronting the media, created and promoted in Cuba by the Castro brothers and by Hugo Chavez, against what they called ‘communication hegemony,” said Claudio Paolillo, a chairman at the Inter American Press Agency (IAPA), in an email to the Knight Center.

Paolillo, who chairs the IAPA’s committee on freedom of the press and information, said ALBA nations subscribe to the philosophy that private media are “destabilizing and colonialist” and believe mass communication should be a service provided by the state.

“Under this concept, the governments give themselves powers to create their own media which, instead of being public media as should happen in any republican democracy, are used as organs of government propaganda,” he added.

It is in this context that Correa has used the Communications Law, passed in 2013 when his party Alianza País won a legislative majority, to further assert the administration’s control over the press. The law defines mass communications as a “public service” and establishes ethical and social guidelines by which media is required to operate.

Within months of the law being passed, the government had appropriated and pledged to redistribute 55 radio and TV stations, accusing them of technical violations in the registration of their broadcast frequencies.

International organizations have called the Communications Law a “gag law,” a piece of legislation meant to silence critics. The Committee to Protect Journalists claims that the provisions within the law are filled with ambiguous language and that the law has already resulted in fines and sanctions against independent news media.

“Under the law, the media is required to publish information in the interest of public well-being. Who determines what is public well-being?” Menacho said. “The state determines it. It’s completely subjective.”

Menacho and Ricaurte are among 60 Ecuadorian public figures who filed a complaint to the country’s constitutional court last year, calling the 2013 Communication Law unconstitutional. The court eventually dismissed their case, but they now fear that the legislature aimed to amend the constitution, defining mass communication as a public service, will further solidifying the government’s tightening grip on media.

If journalism becomes a public service, Menacho and Ricaurte contend, the government can legally enforce arbitrary standards of decency and public interest to silence voices that criticize official policy or question the party line.

According to Ricaurte, nearly 150 charges have been brought against the media under the law since its ratification, resulting in 32 sentences -- two against government-controlled voices and 30 against private independent media -- for ethical infractions.

The first case prosecuted under the Communication Law was that of Xavier Bonilla, a cartoonist for the Ecuadorian newspaper El Universo who was ordered in January to retract and rectify a cartoon depicting police officers confiscating a journalist’s computers and other equipment.

But the list of examples runs on. Journalist and activist Fernando Villavicencio was jailed for 18 months under charges that he defamed Correa, and the tabloid Diario Extra was fined 10 percent of its last three months’ income for not obeying a government order to edit two headlines. Additionally, Correa threatened sanctions against three newspapers he alleged had violated their obligation to “publish public interest articles,” giving what he deemed insufficient coverage to his government’s lawsuit against U.S. oil company Chevron.

The way that the law has been selectively deployed by the administration raises further concerns about the long-term effects that it will have on the Ecuadorian press.

“[The Communication Law] is applied with the goal of making an example and to discipline and domesticate the private media.,” Ricaurte said. “They want to create a politic of fear until the private media uses even the language the government prefers.”

As Correa clings to claims that he is democratizing media, eliminating the monopolies created by large private holders, and combating the influence of private wealth on communications, his own media holdings have grown as a result and diversity of the media, once more abundant in the Ecuadorian press, has notably shrunk.

“They say that, in this process of democratization, there will be a redistribution of broadcast frequencies. Now, one year after the Communication Law took effect, less than five percent of frequencies have been redistributed; the frequencies that have been taken from private media are under state control,” said Menacho.

“What has been formed now in Ecuador is a new media monopoly under one single owner - the state.”

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.