Ecuador's Lacking Freedom of the Press: The Recent Past and Hope for a Better Future
Picture courtesy of Fernando Antonio, Associated Press.
The election of a new president, Lenin Moreno, in Ecuador this past May was a joyous day among many of Ecuador’s oppressed and oft-attacked reporters. The previous president, Rafael Correa, has a long history during his 10 years as president from 2007-2017 of attacking the media in all of its forms. His government did not hesitate to fine, charge and imprison multiple journalists. Correa’s most infamous statements of disdain for the nation’s press were his public comments about their lack of voracity and his acts of ripping up papers which criticized him and his governance - especially the El Universo, against which he filed a libel suit in 2010. In a time where fake news and rampant questioning of the validity of news media is an ever-present topic of debate and conversation, the horrid conditions journalists must exist under in Ecuador is revealing of the necessity for freedom of press and acceptance of critical journalism as part of a free and open democratic society. Correa’s campaigns against the media came to fruition with the Ley Orgánica de Comunicación (Organic Law on Communication) passed in 2013 in the Ecuadorian National Assembly. It forces upon media outlets a variety of restrictions the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the international standards for press freedom disagrees with at principle. For instance, it imposes ethical standards at the state level upon journalists and their publications and/or programming. It also imposes something called ‘media lynching,’ which prohibits putting forth incriminating or slanderous information on a person. This makes it extremely difficult for investigative journalism to occur in Ecuador, at least legally. It puts the journalist in a precarious situation by its wording, forcing them to take ‘ulterior responsibility’ for what they write, even if it is anonymously sourced. Generally, it seeks to make any use of the media to insult, analogize, or investigate Correa or his government a punishable offense. It also put forward laws for Correa and his various commissions which police the media to bring those violating these rather draconian laws to ‘justice’. In action, the law has brought many journalists in the nation to either face the consequences of the law as it is written or take drastic action to avoid persecution by the state. One example of a journalist facing the gravest of treatment is recalled in full in an article from the Independent. It is the full story of journalist Fernando Villavicencio, who is the first journalist in Ecuador to expose the mishandling of the Ecuadorian government of a case against the Chevron oil company and possible corruption on how the company would be prosecuted. As revealed and covered by both Villavicencio and more recently by ChevronToxico.com, when the company was still Texaco, it allowed polluted wastewater and oil spilled at job sites to run into rivers within undisturbed rain forest but did nothing about it, though the activities were illegal both under Ecuadorian and US law. He has been on the run since the article was released in 2013 with his associates in a lawsuit against Correa and supporters of his article, Cléver Jiménez and Carlos Figueroa. They have taken up refuge among the sympathetic Sarayaku people, a tribe which themselves stood up to oil drilling in their area of the Amazon rain forest and had agreed to take in these wanted men. Villavicencio has recently applied for asylum in neighboring Peru, while his wife and young children remain in Ecuador and are frequently questioned concerning his whereabouts. This one example of a man’s promising career torn apart by oppressive laws is just one example among many in Ecuador. Correa and his associates did more than just go after individual journalists who write things that portray them in a negative light. They have, allegedly, actively managed internet access for private citizens, as a leaked memo showed. The memo shows an alleged connection between the national government and the Association of Internet Providers of Ecuador, whose Spanish acronym is AEPROVI, to block access to sites like Google and YouTube in 2014. In fact, the way the ISP is managed makes it so that if users enter the URL of a site, say google.com, the server will send back an error message stating that this website does not exist. This adds to the pillaging of the internet undertaken under the auspices of the Ley Orgánica in Ecuador, leading to many sites providing Ecuadorian news being run outside of Ecuador to avoid fines and detection by authorities. One such site, 4Pelagatos.com (4 Nobodies) is run through the Netherlands but publishes articles in Spanish about current events in Ecuador. Other journalists in Ecuador have simply decided their jobs are made too difficult by the law. They clearly don’t want to end up like Villavicencio, either prosecuted, expelled from their home nation or some combination of the two for publishing potentially unacceptable material in print or online. Lenin Moreno has much work to do to fix his country’s recent horrendous record against freedom of the press and open access to information for all citizens. Though he is highly unlikely to repeal the Ley Orgánica entirely since it gives the executive branch and government as a whole such total control over the press and information distribution and allowance in Ecuador, he should move to amend the portions which impose crippling fines upon journalists simply doing their jobs. The number of suits brought against news media, about 900 since 2013 with half brought forward by the government, reveals an inherent assumption that it is okay to always antagonize and retort articles and journalists who say negative or revealing things about the government, especially President Correa himself. Moreno should strive to have a thicker skin and take criticism as a natural part of being the leader of his nation. Moreno himself has said, in an interview with a Colombian news group that there should and does exist freedom of expression in Ecuador, and if the law in place is limiting it, appropriate and “corresponding changes” should be made. Hopefully he follows through on this promise for the sake of Ecuadorian society and those like Villavicencio who have been all but pushed out of house and home for publishing information critical of the government.