Ecuadorian journalists face “campaign of harassment” for participating in the investigation of the Panama Papers

The six Ecuadorian journalists who participated in the global investigation known as the Panama Papers have been the subject of a “campaign of genuine harassment,” as denounced by the nonprofit organization Fundamedios.

Before the earthquake in Ecuador on April 16 –that has so far has neared 600 dead and thousands wounded – the country’s president, Rafael Correa, was leading this campaign through which he asked citizens to urge reporters to reveal all the leaked documents.

The president published several Tweets in which he not only incited his followers to pressure journalists to publish “the whole truth,” but promoted tags like #DifundanTodo (Publish everything) and had shared articles written by official government newspaper El Telégrafo with the announcement “what you won’t find in the mercantilist press.”

“Something to note is that the Government has taken the publication of the Panama Papers as if it were an attack against the government,” said Mónica Almeida, from Ecuadorian newspaper El Universo, in conversation last week with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. “Under that umbrella, under this perspective, it has assembled a comprehensive strategy in which the only ones who are called to appear are the journalists [that participated in the investigation].”

The hearing to which Almeida refers is a hearing scheduled for April 19 before the Council of Citizen Participation and Social Control (CPCCS for its initials in Spanish). Besides Almeida, journalists Xavier Reyes and Paúl Mena of El UniversoArturo Torres, Andrés Jaramillo and Alberto Araujo from newspaper El Comercio, were cited as reporters who participated in the investigation.

However, due to the earthquake, the journalists told the Council they would not attend, Almeida said to the Knight Center. On the day of the summons, the CPCCS reTweeted a statement in which it reported that it had been postponed until next week at the same time.

In the first citation, issued on April 13, the Council asked them to give “all the information to which you have access in this investigation that pertains to Ecuadorians beyond their political or ideological identity.”

The CPCCS is an entity created by the new constitution that aims to “promote the exercise of the rights of participate and social control of public affairs, the fight against corruption and the promotion of transparency, and to appoint or arrange appointment processes of authorities to which it corresponds,” according to its website.

For Almeida, the extent of the citation is not clear, among other reasons, for lack of prior events like this. However, she is concerned that this Council is in the charge of the Superintendency of Information and Communication (Supercom), the entity in charge of monitoring media in the country. In the first two years of its existence, Supercom imposed fines on various media for almost US $274,000.

In its citation, the CPCCS stated that the journalists must submit the documents supporting the stories that have been published about the Panama Papers case and that have mentioned, in Ecuador, three people linked to Correa’s administration, Almeida said. The Panama Papers exposed politicians, businessmen and public figures that had created business in tax havens through the Panamanian company Mossak Fonseca.

Almeida said that the stories in her country have referenced the Attorney General of the Republic, Galo Chiriboga; the former president of the Central Bank and cousin of Correa, Pedro Delgado; and the former advisor of the Ministry of Intelligence and one of the founders of Mossak Fonseca in Quito, Javier Molina.

However, these people have not experienced any consequences, at least legally, according to the journalist.

“We find it regrettable that the professional and rigorous work of our colleagues in Ecuador and Venezuela is being attacked. These governments should invest the same energy and resources in investigating the officials and other public figures, including businessmen, who have used mechanisms of little transparency – tax havens,” said Marina Walker Guevara, deputy director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), to the Knight Center. “The ICIJ network supports its Ecuadorian and Venezuelan colleagues who have worked with determination and independence at all times and encourages them to continue publishing stories that are of public interest.”

ICIJ is the entity that has the leaked documents. The German newspaper (which originally received the papers) shared them with the organization so it could work on the documents. Recently, ICIJ published a note in which it referred to the situation of Ecuadorian journalists and said that, as it said since the investigation became public, it will not offer access to all documents because they “contain information about private individuals for whom there is no public interest argument for exposure.”

In this same vein, Almeida expressed her opinions on the accusations against the journalists for publishing information based on their own interests. The journalist said that there is certain information that has not been published because they are still in the process of verifying data. In addition, she said, since it is not illegal in Ecuador to have companies outside of the country, the information is published only when it is found to be in the public interest.

ICIJ also said that although it will not share information with governments, they will continue the process of analyzing data.

In addition to CPCCS, the Commission of Justice of the National Assembly announced that it will start an investigation related to the caseEl Universo reported. And although this entity called those involved, it also noted the intention to summon journalists.

“The campaign started last week to get us to release all that we know and all that we have,” Almeida said. “It initially started with saying release all, tell the truth, etc., and has growth so that this week it is possible to see a coordinated activity between activists of a group of youth, the president, and another website called Somos Más (We are More) – akin to the Government – which has used our photos, and the logo that they have is the same used by the Consortium and over a hashtag that says ‘release everything.”

In its report, Fundamedios said that after the beginning of this campaign, “the aggressions and attacks on social media were immediate,” and gave as an example some Tweets in which users, in addition to offenses against journalists, published photos of the reporters in some situations with family. It also said that “it rejects and condemns these actions that demonstrate the harassment and stigmatization from power.”

The Inter American Press Association also commented on the situation of the Ecuadorian journalists. The president of the Commission of Press Freedom and Information of the organization, Claudio Paolillo, said that “we hold President Correa responsible for the physical integrity of journalists and for his constant policy of intimidation.”

The Ecuadorian journalist, however, are not the only ones who have experienced consequences for their investigations. Journalist Ahiana Figueroa, of the Venezuelan media group Últimas Noticias, was dismissed from her job. It reportedly occurred because of her participation in the Panama Papers.

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.