Despite violence against the press, Ecuador's protection mechanism for journalists lacks resources

The 2018 murders of the team from newspaper El Comercio at the hands of a dissident group of the Colombian FARC guerrilla marked a before and after in the issue of security for the press in Ecuador.

It was precisely this crime and the pressure exerted by journalistic associations and civil society organizations as a result of it that led to the creation of the country’s Mechanism for the Protection of Journalists.

Yet, press advocates were critical of the effectiveness of the mechanism in protecting journalists. Alarm bells only got louder when the government of President Daniel Noboa declined to approve the budget for its operation for 2024 and 2025.

“This refusal constitutes a serious attack against Ecuadoran journalism, which already faces a hostile environment to carry out its work,” press freedom organization Fundamedios said in a statement on May 29 when the refusal to approve the US $784,000 directed to this year and the next was reported. Of that total, US$66,000 was directed to the emergency fund to protect journalists, according to Fundamedios.

“[It creates] a lot of concern. The situation continues to deteriorate, the lack of guarantees for journalistic work in Ecuador becomes more complicated every day and this lack of commitment from the State, from the government of Daniel Noboa, to the safety and protection of journalists, is very worrying,” César Ricaurte, executive director of Fundamedios, told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).

According to Ricaurte, levels of violence against the press in the country have been high since 2022. During that year, the most violent since 2018, Fundamedios recorded 356 attacks against the press. In 2023, there were 265 attacks, and during the first five months of 2024, the organization has already recorded 95 attacks.

“I believe that the levels are sustained. The levels of aggressions, threats, attacks against journalists in the last two years are sustained in 2024,” said Ricaurte, who highlighted what happened at the TC Televisión headquarters in Guayaquil as particularly serious. On Jan. 9, an armed group entered the TC Televisión facilities while a news program was being broadcast live. Although there were no fatalities, the psychological impacts on journalists still remain.

For 2024, Ecuador dropped 30 positions in the World Press Freedom Index carried out annually by Reporters Without Borders. In the 2023 ranking, Ecuador ranked 80th, while in 2024 it ranked 110th among 180 countries.

A mechanism without resources

The Mechanism for the Prevention and Protection of Journalistic Work had its beginnings in 2018 when Javier Ortega, Paúl Rivas, and Efraín Segarra – members of a team from the newspaper El Comercio – were murdered while reporting on the conflict on the Ecuador-Colombia border.

Lenín Moreno, president of Ecuador at the time, committed to creating a mechanism in the face of internal and even international pressure from entities like the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). By May 2019, the Interinstitutional Committee for the Protection of Journalists and Communication Workers was established. It had the objective of “implementing protection mechanisms” for press workers whose work could put their lives at risk.

The Committee was criticized for the lack of participation of civil society and journalists, as well as for having reduced protection to journalists who covered four beats: corruption, human trafficking, merchandise smuggling and drug trafficking.

“[It was] just like a salute to the flag,” Ricardo Rivas, Paúl's brother, told LJR, adding that the Committee was only made up of five ministers of the State.

For Rivas, protecting the journalist became a personal issue after experiencing the murder of his brother. For this reason, he has been linked to the path of the mechanism, and knows first-hand the pressure exerted by civil society until the new Communication Law was reformed and approved in 2022.

Within this new Law, the Mechanism for the Prevention and Protection of Journalistic Work was created under the mandate of then-President Guillermo Lasso. In August 2023, the regulations that finally allowed the operation of the mechanism were established.

However, both Ricaurte and Rivas agree that there was a lack of foresight as to how the mechanism could work, especially regarding resources. Neither the law nor the regulations made it clear what the budget of the mechanism would be or where it would come from, according to Ricaurte.

“In the law, the budget to finance the mechanism had not been covered, and in the regulations they tried to correct that with a provision that indicates that the State must ensure the resources for the operation of the mechanism,” Ricaurte explained.

The solution was the Council for the Development and Promotion of Information and Communication. This Communication Council, created by the Organic Law of Communication created by former President Rafael Correa, went from being the entity that monitored the media to being an entity in charge of protecting journalists. The council oversees the mechanism and in theory is in charge of its budget.

In search of making a “a more plural” council and one that was not so dependent on the Executive Branch, Ricaurte explained, it is currently made up of delegates. He is one of them and represents civil society.

And although it is a separate entity from the protection mechanism, the actions that the mechanism is allowed to carry out are coordinated by the council.

In January 2024, it was decided that the presidency of the mechanism itself would be in the hands of Ricardo Rivas. The mechanism, explained Rivas, has three main areas of work: prevention, protection and urgent measures, and a technical unit.

For example, in the area of ​​prevention, training is included for members of civil society and security forces. The protection area includes the measures required by threatened and/or attacked journalists.

However, due to the lack of budget, the mechanism as such does not have a stable work team. Rivas is an ad honorem president, who has the help of two officials from the communication council as a “loan.”

With them, he has tried to give shape to initial topics such as processes and regulations of the mechanism. Likewise, he makes use of council resources that allow the mechanism to carry out activities without using a lot of money: its platforms, software, and even other expert officials in administrative and legal areas when necessary.

“What happens is that the communication council's budget, almost 90 or 95% goes to payments [for personnel]. So they don't have the money to solve the mechanism system either,” Rivas said.

LJR requested to speak with the Secretary of Communication of the Presidency, as well as with the presidency of the communication council, but had not received a response as of publication time.

Support from international and civil society organizations

Given the situation of violence against the press that the country is experiencing and with a lack of tools for the mechanism to function as it should, support from the international community and civil society has been vital to be able to provide some help to journalists in danger.

In that void, Ricaurte explains that the Roundtable of Coordination for Protection for Journalists was created. It’s a nongovernmental initiative made up of civil society organizations like Periodistas Sin Cadenas, Fundamedios, Nos Faltan Tres and media such as GK and Plan V.

“Organizations that have been working on protection issues,” Ricaurte said. “So civil society, regardless of the actions of the State, continues to work, continues to coordinate, continues to establish protection actions for journalists.”

The work of this Roundtable as well as Rivas's search for alliances and actions by State entities have managed to exile 14 journalists in recent years, and relocate other journalists internally. They have also sought help from state entities in case a journalist requires protection measures – such as escorts – or panic buttons.

Rivas is also analyzing the option of seeking resources from international organizations. This possibility was established in the Law that allows the mechanism to seek resources outside the State.

This is not very easy and it is not ideal, Rivas points out. It was thought that pressure from entities such as the Special Rapporteur’s Office of the IACHR or the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) would have some positive impact on the mechanism. In fact, during the IAPA visit to the country on March 20, Noboa signed the declarations of Chapultepec and Salta, commitments to promote freedom of expression. For its part, the IAPA made calls to “strengthen and give priority to the Mechanism of Protection for Journalists,” during a press conference.

Also in March, the Special Rapporteur’s Office published a statement in which it makes the same call: “strengthen [journalist] security, as well as the protection mechanism in Ecuador.” The Rapporteur’s Office highlighted the creation of the mechanism, but warned about the “uncertainties that still persist, which could affect their effectiveness at a critical time when their operation is especially necessary. The Office of the Special Rapporteur, in its commitment to this initiative, has offered its technical cooperation in the implementation process.”

However, Rivas and Ricaurte see a reluctance on the part of the country's Presidency to even speak with civil society.

“Absolutely nothing has happened,” Rivas said. “It makes me very sad to see that, since the Moreno government, that is, two previous governments, they have not really given the importance that this pillar, which is fundamental in a democratic country, deserves.”

Translated by Teresa Mioli
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