To Assange’s Friend Correa, Journalists Are 'Assassins with Ink'

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The news that the government of Ecuador granted political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has quite properly triggered numerous commentaries on the irony—or better yet, hypocrisy—of Assange seeking help from Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa, one of the world’s leading adversaries of press freedom. Assange made his bid for asylum after the British authorities agreed to deport him to Sweden, where he has been charged with sexually assaulting two women.

During WikiLeaks’ heyday, Assange was prone to self-righteous pontifications about his contribution to freedom of information and expression. But his new ally, Correa, has systematically attempted to muzzle Ecuador’s press through a variety of instruments that include lawsuits before a pliant judiciary, censorship, and state intimidation. Since Correa assumed power, Ecuador has suffered one of the world’s most substantial declines in press freedom, according to Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press report.

Below is a shortened version of the Ecuador chapter from Freedom of the Press 2012, which covers the year 2011. Since the reporting period ended, Correa, in response to a firestorm of criticism from governments and press freedom organizations, has pardoned the three executives and the columnist for El Universo who had received jail sentences for libel, and forgiven the $42 million in fines against the newspaper. Other developments in 2012 have been more in keeping with Correa’s personal war against what he calls “media dictatorship.” These include the shutdown of several privately owned television and radio stations and the imposition of “preemptive censorship” during an election period. In a recent television appearance, Correa held up a photo of Gustavo Cortez, El Universo’s editor, and told his viewers to remember his face “as a lucid example of the bad press in the country.” 

Freedom of the Press: Ecuador

The media environment in Ecuador became even more polarized in 2011 as President Rafael Correa continues to disparage the media as “assassins with ink.” A controversial communications bill, on the table for over a year, had still not been approved by the legislature at year’s end. This bill would introduce prior censorship by the state, stricter mandatory licensing of journalists, and obligatory registration for media outlets with a Communication and Information Board that would control editorial content. The bill would also weaken safeguards that guarantee the anonymity of sources. An electoral law that forbids the media to disseminate any direct or indirect “promotion” that may influence the public in favor of or against any candidate came under fire in 2011, but had not passed by year’s end. This law would forbid publishing or transmitting any type of information, including photographs and opinion pieces, about the electoral process in for 48 hours before the voting. Additionally, the media must abstain from reporting on political campaigns 90 days before the election. President Correa is expected to seek reelection in 2013, and this law will make it difficult for the news media to cover the campaign and inform citizens about candidates and their points of view. 

Libel and defamation remain criminal offences, and there were several highly publicized actions by Correa during the year. The most high profile case was an $80 million libel lawsuit against opinion editor and columnist Emilio Palacio and the directors of the newspaper that employed him, El Universo. Correa sued El Universo after it published an article by Palacio criticizing Correa’s handling of a police uprising in September 2010, which the government called an attempted coup d’état. In July 2011, the court quickly ruled in favor of the president, but reduced the damage award to $40 million. The directors of the paper, brothers Carlos, Cesar, and Nicolas Perez, as well as Palacio, were each sentenced to three years in prison. Palacio was ordered to pay $10 million of the $40 million award. He left the country in August 2011, saying that he was being politically persecuted, and now writes a blog from Miami. The speed in which the judge read the 5,000-page case and produced a 156-page ruling within hours raised questions about the judicial independence in the case.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, criminal defamation laws in Ecuador are being systematically used to publish journalists who are critical to the government. In another criminal defamation suit, in October radio journalist Carlos Ignacio Cedeño was sentenced to six months in prison for airing a radio program that accused a doctor of stealing medical equipment from a public hospital. In December, Jaime Mantilla Anderson, an editor of the newspaper Hoy, was sentenced to three months in prison for a series of articles without bylines that reported that Correa’s cousin, the president of the central bank, was influencing the government behind the scenes.

In a referendum in May, a measure was narrowly approved to create a media regulatory council. At year’s end this had not yet become law, but it does raise the likelihood of direct censorship and still greater control of the news media. Meanwhile, the National Communications Council (CONATEL) continued to create licensing restrictions in Ecuador. CONATEL is still considered to be highly dependent on the government, with four of six members answering directly to the president, and thus, often subject to government influence. In August 2011, CONATEL cancelled Telesangay TV’s license seemingly because of its opposition to the central government. Additionally, the Telecommunications Superintendent (SUPERTEL) took legal action against seven radio stations in September 2011 for broadcasting programs promoting freedom of expression and allegedly failing to notify SUPERTEL of their intent to air these programs. These sanctions were later dismissed after SUPERTEL admitted that they did not find any sound arguments to substantiate their allegations and therefore decided not to take the case forward. 

In December, a working group of the Organization of American States (OAS) studying the operations of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) submitted a report that included three recommendations introduced by Ecuador that would effectively marginalize the office of the special rapporteur for freedom of expression. The special rapporteur issues alerts calling attention to incidents of infringement of press freedom throughout the Americas, including several in Ecuador during Correa’s presidency. The recommendations would result in a severe budget cut for the special rapporteur’s office; eliminate its annual country-by-country report on freedom of expression in the Americas, reducing it to merely a chapter in a larger IACHR report; and create a code of conduct governing the office’s operations, which would severely limit its independence.

Attacks on journalists and media houses continue to rise. In 2011, Fundamedios, the national press freedom watchdog organization, cited nearly 150 incidents of aggression against the media and freedom of expression by authorities as well as ordinary citizens (physical, verbal and legal), an increase on the previous year.

Journalists and advocates also received targeted threats. Juan Alcivar, a correspondent for the daily La Hora in La Concordia, received numerous death threats by telephone starting in June 2011 for reporting on a power struggle among local authorities. In November, journalist Christian Zurita of El Universo was drugged while doing paperwork early in the morning at the Social Security Institute building. Doctors speculated that Zurita had been drugged with a substance known as scopolamine, the perpetrators and possible motive for the attack were not clear. Cesar Ricaurte, executive director of Fundamedios, started receiving death threats after his group presented a report on press freedom violations to the IACHR in Washington in October.

The majority of media outlets—both print and broadcast—are privately owned. However, the government controls—directly  or indirectly—20 media outlets, including six television and cable stations, five radio stations, three newspapers, four magazines, and a news agency. Twelve of the media outlets under government control were private until the 2008 financial crisis, when the state took ownership of them to settle their parent company’s debt from bankruptcy. By law, the government was required to promptly divest itself of the 12 companies, but after more than three years, it has not done so.