Trauma from violent takeover of TV channel in Ecuador highlights need to address mental health, journalists say

José Luis Calderón's work as a journalist placed him in a dangerous situation at the beginning of 2024. But he believes that it was also journalism that saved him.

On Jan. 9 of this year, Calderón was working at TC Televisión in Guayaquil, Ecuador, which is owned by the state public media company and a private company. During a live broadcast of one of its news programs, a group of armed men who had their faces covered took over the facilities and entered the studio. Two days before, Ecuador had been shaken by violent riots in prisons and streets in various parts of the country after an organized crime leader escaped imprisonment.

For several minutes, television viewers watched as the attackers pointed their weapons at journalists and the technical team, while other employees pleaded for their lives on the floor. Some shots were even heard. In the midst of the chaos, Calderón could be seen on screen asking the subjects to calm down while they placed an alleged explosive device in his jacket pocket and demanded that he use the studio cameras to ask that the police not enter or someone could lose their life.

Covers of different newspapers show the news about the violent attack to TC Televisión studios in Ecuador.

The news of the attack against TC Televisión was covered by media outlets from all over the continent. (Photo: Screenshot from Clarín, El Espectador and El Comercio)



The images, which circulated around the world, show Calderón apparently in control of the situation trying to calm the criminals. The journalist believes that the coverage of violent and tragic events that he has carried out throughout his 23-year-career –from prison shootings to the rescue of miners trapped in Chile in 2010– prepared him to face the Jan. 9 attack with fortitude.

“I maintained that physical, cognitive, sensory posture in the face of the chaotic. [...] I didn't break down and it was like I was reporting,” Calderón told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). “In a way I feel that [journalism] trained me and allowed me to maintain a calm or composure in calling for the terrorists not to go far with the threats, which were constant.”

But despite this apparent composure, Calderón said that inside he broke and that the events had a clear impact on his mental health.

The channel remained off the air for two days and Calderón began a two-week vacation period that he had previously agreed upon. But those vacations turned into an indefinite medical leave because, he said, he found it necessary to begin psychological treatment.

Like Calderón, two months after the events, other TC Televisión employees have turned to various forms of psychological support to try to alleviate the trauma left by the violent takeover of the channel. This experience forced journalists from the channel to recognize the importance of mental healthcare in order to practice good journalism.

One of the ways in which TC Televisión employees are trying to regain emotional stability is through a new emergency psychosocial support program from freedom of expression organization Fundamedios. It arose as a result of the attack on the television station, but also in the face of a deterioration of working conditions for journalists in Ecuador.

“One of the concerns was how this very violent event, so traumatic for Ecuadorian society, had a strong impact on the psychological and emotional health of journalists and TC workers,” César Ricaurte, executive director of Fundamedios, told LJR. “The takeover of the channels were perhaps the most terrible acts of violence that journalism in Ecuador has experienced, and there have been really complicated events.”

The Fundamedios program goes beyond offering psychological therapy. It consists of workshops that include holistic therapies and resilience techniques to manage traumatic events, some of them based on ancestral knowledge from the native cultures of Ecuador. According to Ricaurte, the initiative departs from the more traditional vision of psychological assistance and is based on a comprehensive vision of the well-being and psychosocial health of journalists.

“The all-day workshop is divided into two parts: a part of more physical work, in which we work with meditation, yoga, aromas,” he said. “And in the second part we work on the development of resilience techniques, which are basically based on how to manage breathing, control anxiety levels and achieve balance in four aspects: emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually.”

Ecuadoran journalist José Luis Calderón poses in a TC Televisión studio.

The attackers placed an alleged explosive device in journalist José Luis Calderón's jacket pocket and pointed guns at him on several occasions. (Photo: José Luis Calderón's X account)

The initiative started on Jan. 27 in a pilot phase with workshops for TC Televisión workers in Guayaquil. In February, Fundamedios began offering virtual workshops for at least 20 Ecuadoran journalists in exile, and in March the organization plans to take the program to a group of about 30 journalists from the rest of the country who are considered at risk.

“The idea is that towards the second half of the year we can establish a program of greater scope, in which we can already provide almost permanent support or assistance to journalists who require it,” Ricaurte said. “But obviously that will depend a lot on the resources we can mobilize.”

Since 2020, Fundamedios has implemented programs to care for the mental health of journalists. That year, it launched the “Conscious Journalism” program in alliance with Peru’s Press and Society Institute and the Venezuelan organization Medianalisis. It took place during the COVID-19 pandemic and consisted of evaluating the mental health of journalists in those countries and offering them psychological support.

The director of Fundamedios said that initially they encountered some resistance from some TC Televisión employees who did not want to relive what happened in therapy.

One of them was Jorge Rendón, deputy news director and presenter for the channel, and one of the journalists who was on air at the time of the attack. Rendón and his co-host Vanessa Filella heard through in-ear monitoring that subjects were trying to enter the studio, so they were sent to a commercial break and then took refuge in a safe place from where they heard the panic of their colleagues and the threats of the aggressors.

Rendón said that the workshop offered by Fundamedios gave him tools to work on the emotions that he had blocked in the days after the attack.

“I thought we were going to relive what we suffered from the attack, that trauma. And it turns out that it was the opposite, we never broached the subject. Rather, it was the opposite: it was the antidote to get rid of all that,” the journalist told LJR. “We were rather surprised that the issue was to tone it down a bit, or unlock that feeling we had.”

Calderón, who did not participate in the Fundamedios workshops, added that TC Televisión has offered emotional support to its staff through a group of psychologists, but that he and other employees decided not to take it because they still do not want to return to the channel's facilities. He, like other members of the team, he said, decided to seek private treatment.

'We are not machines, we are human beings telling stories'

Part of the purpose of the Fundamedios workshops is to offer Ecuadorian journalists tools to alleviate traumatic situations that they have faced in the past due to their work and the stress that the exercise of their profession has involved in recent years when violence against the press has increased significantly.

“It is not only about overcoming a trauma that we had recently, strong, without a doubt. It also served to alleviate possible frustrations or situations that we had guarded and that we never wanted to clear up,” Rendón said. “[The Fundamedios workshop] also served to alleviate that burden.”

Prior to the violent takeover of TC Televisión, the Ecuadoran press had faced two years of a clear increase in cases of violence compared to previous years. According to Fundamedios' annual report, attacks on members of the media by organized crime increased 240 percent in 2023 compared to the previous year.

In 2022, four journalists were murdered in Ecuador: Mike Cabrera, Gerardo Delgado, César Vivanco and Johanna Guayguacundo. A year later, journalist and presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was killed in an environment of violence and institutional crisis. Also in 2023, about a dozen journalists had to go into exile, according to data from Fundamedios.

“It has been a chain of very traumatic events, and obviously that is reflected in the great fear that exists in many Ecuadoran journalists who report in the streets, who are constantly at the foot of the news,” Ricaurte said. “That is why it is doubly valuable and we must value the work that many of these communicators do daily facing their own fears and the impact that these events have had.”

Ecuadorian news anchors Vanessa Filella and Jorge Rendón speak during a newscast of TC Televisión network.

News anchors Vanessa Filella and Jorge Rendón were on air when the attackers entered the TV studios. (Photo: Screenshot from TC Televisión's YouTube channel)

In previous years, Calderón and Rendón had already faced traumatic experiences as a result of their profession, which they said they had not worked on.

Calderón said that he was robbed at gunpoint last year while reporting in the streets. Rendón said he was abducted in 2005 and attributes it to topics covered during his journalistic investigations.

“The wave of violence is so bloody that it has involved us journalists, who have stopped being spectators and have become protagonists,” Calderón said. “The task of journalism or the journalist is exposed and we are also very limited in carrying out our work.”

The journalist said that after the events of Jan. 9 he realized that he had never received psychological assistance to prevent the traumatic events that he’s faced in his profession from disrupting his emotional health. Although he has not been part of the Fundamedios program so far, he recognized the importance of journalists paying attention to their mental health.

“It is vital that we raise awareness, we are human beings who are involved in the craft of telling stories. We are not machines, let's understand,” he said. “Journalism demands a lot from you, hence the need to incorporate mechanisms from companies to improve cognitive aspects and avoid getting sick with depression in the face of so many chaotic events that we usually witness.”

Rendón also said that journalists need psychological support programs to unload the experiences of their professional life, which, he said, is extremely sacrificial and emotional.

Ricaurte, for his part, said that physical, mental and emotional health is essential for journalists to be able to practice their profession in the way society needs.

“To the extent that the journalist has comprehensive well-being, mental, physical, spiritual, emotional well-being, they will be able to better fulfill their role in society, they will be able to have more empathy, they will be able to better understand the problems they face, they will have greater emotional and mental clarity to make the best decisions,” he said. “I think that will definitely translate into a better level of professionalism.”

Translated by Teresa Mioli
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