Using humor and satire against attacks on freedom of expression in Ecuador: Censuracom vs. Supercom

With a "humorous and satirical tone" the Andean Foundation for Social Observation and Media Study, known as Fundamedios, launched Censuracom.ec, in which the organization recorded "the most alarming attacks on freedom of expression and of the press" in Ecuador.

However, just hours later, Fundamedios reported through Twitter that it had suffered "intense DDoS attacks" that left the new portal offline; connection has since been re-established. The organization’s main site also was pushed offline and then access was intermittent, according to the Inter-American Press Association.

Starting with its name, the portal, which is divided into six sections, uses comedy and critique along with cartoons, audiovisual materials and documents to create a snapshot of the state of freedom of expression in Ecuador during 2015. The portal’s name refers to agencies in the country accused of being the main perpetrators of attacks againsgt freedom of expression - SupercomCordicomSecom.

"The tone is humorous, satirical because in reality we could not find a better way to show attacks against the press in Ecuador," said César Ricaurte, director of Fundamedios, during the press conference that launched the site. "There are many surreal events that could not be believed in any other context, but they are happening in Ecuador.”

"Despite the humorous tone, all information is serious, it is verified. It is absolutely valid, these are hard data,” Ricaurte said during the launch.

According to Fundamedios’ data, 2015 will go down in history as one of the years with the highest number of attacks on the press with 377 reported cases. Despite this "overwhelming" number, the report says that "this alone is insufficient to account for a serious situation, but a tragicomical one at the same time.”

For example, in its first section, 'The villains of the year,' the site looks at five politicians who, according to Fundamedios, were the protagonists of the greatest number of attacks against the press.

First place went to the head of the Superintendency of Information and Communication (Supercom), Carlos Ochoa, who was "responsible for 100 attacks against the press" during 2015.

Supercom, regulator of the media, was created with the passage of the Organic Law of Communication (LOC) in 2013. Having been in operation for only two years, by August 2015 it had already executed more than 500 cases against media, had sanctioned 313 media companies and had imposed fines of almost US $274,000.

The president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, also falls into this category and occupies third place. According to the report, the president was responsible for 22 attacks on the press in 2015, but has been responsible for 418 since 2008.

Fernando Alvarado, former head of the National Communications Secretariat (Secom) and current Minister of Tourism; José Bolívar Castillo, former assembly member and mayor of Loja; and Richard Espinosa, president of the Board of Ecuadorian Social Security Institute (IESS), complete the list of "villains".

The second section is devoted to the Supercom decisions that have generated the most controversy in the country. One, for example, was the sanction imposed on the newspaper La Hora for not publishing the statement of accountability  of the mayor of Loja, Bolívar Castillo. At the time, La Hora declared it was in resistance.

In the 'gunfire against the press' section, the report presents the "most unusual" replies media are obliged to publish after Supercom resolutions. One such case involved the newspaper El Comercio, that, according Fundamedios, "was forced to lie on the cover" to publish a correction of an article that had documents supporting it.

The report also included the case of El Universo, which was fined US $ 350,000 for not posting a reply in the way that it had been diagrammed and written by Secom. The newspaper had published a replica of the same note by an order of the Minister of Finance, but Secom had not been satisfied.

The fourth section presents "the most alarming assaults" that affect not only the media, but also citizens. Here, the decision made in December by the National Assembly that converted communication into "a public service" was included.

The site also included cases of citizens whose right to freedom of expression was affected. One case that caused a great amount of controversy was that of Luis Calderón, a 17-year-old student, who was arrested for making "obscene gestures" to President Correa. Calderón was sentenced to 20 hours of community service.

In the last two sections, Fundamedios emphasized to journalists that "despite distant attacks from power, they continue their work,” and in the other, they made a call “to remember the digital rights violations" in 2015.

They highlighted the case of Manuela Picq, a Brazilian journalist who was forced to leave the country after the government suspended her visa and denied her requests for a new visa. Her lawyer said taking they are the case to Inter-American bodies.

It also highlights Martín Pallares, fired from El Comercio after making Twitter posts. Pallares is one of the journalists who has been verbally attacked the most by President Correa during his weekly broadcasts known as sabatinas.

In the last session of attacks on digital rights, the organization emphasized the case of Crudo Ecuador, whose creator had to close the satirical accounts on Facebook and Twitter after receiving death threats. President Correa referred to this person on several occasions and threatened to reveal his identity. Finally, supporters of the president not only revealed his identity, but also his family’s, according to the Censuracom portal.

The site also reports on several DDoS attacks to different information portals, as well as threats through social networks.

Fundamedios has also been the focus of regulatory agencies in the country. In September 2015, the organization released a communication from Secom in which the agency reported that it had begun the process of dissolution. Secom said Fundamedios had violated the current statute that prohibits political activities by social organizations. The case was closed due to international pressure, but officials gave a last warning to Fundamedios that it adhere to the statute.

The situation of freedom of expression in Ecuador has been a concern of national and international organizations in recent years. Special attention has been given to the Communications Law passed in 2013, which bodies, such as the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, have indicated could go against international standards on freedom of expression.

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.