By Mónica Almeida, regional editor of the newspaper El Universo in Ecuador
On Tuesday, Oct. 25, a group of journalists and organizations defending human rights appeared at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), in Washington D.C., to present the problems that are affecting freedom of expression in Ecuador.
It was our first international hearing to defend freedom of expression for Ecuadorians in front of our country's government. Perhaps in the best court available to the public, the IACHR.
Unfortunately, two people could not join us. They are Pepe Acacho, vice president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE, in Spanish) and manager of the Shuar community radio station Arutam (Amazon), who is accused of terrorism; while Wilson Cabrera, owner of an Amazonian radio station, whose broadcast license will not be renewed and whose equipment was confiscated, was stopped the moment he passed immigration checkpoints for reasons still unknown.
Until the last minute we prepared ourselves for a 20-minute statement, in which we wanted to raise awareness to all who could hear us on the situation in Ecuador. We were nervous because we knew that the other side was going to have the federal prosecutor, but at the same time, we were filled with courage with the conviction that we were defending principles.
Outside, there were hordes of government supporters with speeches in favor of the president and Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño, and posters against the media. It was what we expected.
Our discussion began with a video showing how the executive power in Ecuador considers it normal to interfere with the powers of the state, the systematic campaign to stigmatize journalists, and four specific cases of attempts to silence journalists and the media through administrative and judicial processes.
Apart from the two radio stations already mentioned, one of the specific cases is the lawsuit President Rafael Correa filed, as a citizen, against investigative journalists Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita for the publication of the book "El Gran Hermano" (Big Brother), in which they revealed how Fabricio Correa, brother of the president, won government contracts for about $170 million dollars.
Correa asked of the journalists, who have worked in the field for more than 20 years and only have a house and a car, for a compensation of $10 million. If convicted, they will have to work 200 years for the citizen president.
The other instance is a conviction currently on appeal in criminal court, which also involves Rafael Correa filing a lawsuit as a citizen, against the journalist Emilio Palacio, the three directors of the newspaper El Universo, and the company CA El Universo. The sentence seeks damages of $40 million dollars, and requires the four defendants to spend three years in prison.
You can see the video
At the beginning of the hearing, the president of IACHR, Dinah Shelton, listed all parties recognized by the Ecuadorian state. It is then she not only mentioned Pazmiño and his adviser, but also Tania Arias, a member of the Judicial Council of Transition, as well as the ombudsman. None of the three were present.
Two officials spoke on behalf of the Ecuadorian state. Diego Garcia, Solicitor General, said that the cases presented were specific cases and in no way reflect the status of freedom of expression in Ecuador. He did not consider it relevant that the plaintiffs exposed problems of the alleged criminalization of social protest and manipulation of justice or the penal code. This is why Garcia warned the commissioners that our intention was to convert the hearing into a political trial against the government.
The next to speak was foreign minister Ricardo Patiño, to whom we represented the power groups responsible for freezing all banking in Ecuador in 1999 and for the financial crisis of that year. And beyond assuring that censorship comes from the owners of the media, he listed all the achievements of the government of which he is a part.
As journalists who revealed emblematic cases of the banking crisis of that time, it was outrageous that we were now being accused of representing those who were responsible. It was proof that, ultimately, when power is vested with arrogance, they look for scapegoats among the messengers.
State interventions exceeded the set limit; therefore the IACHR president gave us an additional five minutes which we used to insist that government had not addressed the approaches exposed here.
In the final minutes, the commissioners raised several questions which focused on the self-regulation of the media, the separation of powers in Ecuador, the mobilization order of the judicial system issued by Correa, and the concern that it would seem that the crime of injury in Ecuador applies only to journalists and ordinary citizens, but from the top down, the government insults consistently.
We believe this hearing was in our favor because of our arguments, as someone said. But it is only one hearing and in one good court. A court where they cannot break our word with chains of government propaganda, or discredit journalists, or order supporters to demonstrate outside of media buildings, escorted by police. A court where we are heard impartially.
Here, having returned (to Ecuador), we await the same battles, and perhaps worse ones because the cards have already been dealt. But we will continue, drawing strength to face them.
Monica Almeida, based in Quito, is the regional editor of the newspaper El Universo. She won a Nieman Fellowship in 2008-2009.