The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, but the government restricted these rights in practice.
Freedom of Speech: President Correa and his government continued verbal and legal attacks against the press during the year. The president regularly stated that the press was his “biggest enemy” and increasingly filed libel lawsuits against journalists. He also publicly encouraged government officials and private individuals to bring cases against the media.
Generally, individuals could criticize the government publicly or privately without reprisal. However, it is illegal to threaten or insult the president or executive branch, and violators can be reprimanded with six months’ to two years’ imprisonment or a fine of $16 to $77.
On February 26, the presidential guard briefly detained Marco Luis Sovenis after he shouted “fascist” at the president. In his weekly address on March 5, President Correa stated: “Like it or not, in this country it is a crime to shout ‘fascist’ at the president… We are going to bring the relevant criminal charges.” However, Sovenis was never formally charged.
Freedom of Press: The independent media remained active and expressed a wide variety of views, including those critical of the government. The government owned at least 19 media stations and used its extensive publicity to influence public debate. New laws also limited the ownership of media companies.
Violence and Harassment: The law mandates the broadcast of messages and reports by the president and his cabinet free of charge. The government regularly required media stations to broadcast statements by the president and other leaders, and this reduced the stations’ paid programming. President Correa frequently used these broadcasts and his public appearances to make personal attacks on specific journalists, as well as to criticize the media, question its competence and professionalism, and accuse it of bias. Journalists and local press associations reported that the president’s “systematic” verbal attacks against the media created “a hostile environment for journalists.”
The press freedom NGO Fundamedios reported 156 cases of harassment (threats, attacks, or arrests) against journalists or other representatives of the press during the year.
On October 23, journalist Wilson Cabrera Riera was denied permission to leave the country due to an outstanding warrant for his arrest. Cabrera claimed that the warrant was baseless and had been issued in a region of the country that he had never visited. Cabrera was attempting to travel to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to participate in a hearing about press freedom in the country.
On November 9, Cesar Ricaurte, executive director of Fundamedios, stated in an interview that he had received death threats following his October 25 testimony at the IACHR regarding the situation of press freedom in the country.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The relationship between the press and the government was poor, and journalists working at private media companies reported instances of indirect censorship and stated that President Correa’s attacks caused them to practice self-censorship.
Private media companies reported that the government frequently used tax and labor inspections to harass those companies that published reports critical of the government. These investigations forced the companies to undertake time-consuming and costly legal defense.
The government was the largest single advertiser in the country and used advertising contracts to reward or punish media companies. Media companies critical of the government reported receiving no government advertising or having large contracts cancelled.
Journalists claimed that the broadcast frequency renewal process became a subjective political evaluation of the station rather than a technical review.
Libel Laws/National Security: The government increasingly used legal mechanisms against media companies, journalists, and private individuals, including use of libel laws. Fundamedios reported 26 lawsuits against journalists or media companies since 2006, six of which were filed during the year. Libel is a criminal offense under the law with penalties of up to three years in prison, fines, and damages.
The law includes criminal libel charges, which may be used to criminalize opinion. The reach of the law, however, including whether it applies to opinion articles and whether media owners are liable for statements made by reporters or others using their media platforms, remained unclear and was under scrutiny in the El Universo and Hoy cases.
On March 22, President Correa filed criminal libel charges against the newspaper El Universo; its directors Carlos, Cesar, and Nicolas Perez; and former opinion editor Emilio Palacio for an editorial published on February 6. On July 20, a judge found the four defendants guilty of libel and sentenced them to three years in jail and a combined $30 million damages payment. The newspaper was assessed an additional $10 million in damages. In late August Palacio fled the country, reportedly because he feared he was in danger. In September the Guayas Provincial Court upheld the initial verdict after the defendants appealed. The defendants filed a second appeal with the National Court of Justice. On December 28, the national court upheld Palacio’s conviction. A hearing for the separate appeal filed by El Universo and its directors was pending at year’s end.
On December 21, the Pichincha Criminal Court sentenced Hoy newspaper director Jaime Mantilla Anderson to three months in prison and a $25 fine based on a libel lawsuit filed by then Central Bank chairman Pedro Delgado Campana. According to press reports, the case was filed in 2009 on the claim that several articles published in the newspaper harmed Delgado’s reputation. Mantilla was sentenced after he refused to disclose the names of the journalist or the sources. After the ruling Delgado told the press that he would withdraw the charges, but at the end of the year he had not formally submitted a request to do so. Mantilla appealed the sentence.