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.” While he dropped the private libel lawsuits and criminal charges against journalists in February, several NGOs and international human rights organizations expressed concerns regarding criminalizing speech and the chilling effect that the lawsuits had on many journalists. During his weekly television and radio address, the president continued to encourage government officials and private individuals to bring cases against the media, which led to increased media self-censorship.
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 penalties for violators are six months’ to two years’ imprisonment or a fine of $16 to $77.
Freedom of Press: The independent media generally remained active and expressed a wide variety of views, including those critical of the government. The government owned or operated at least 21 media stations and one newspaper and used its extensive advertising budget to influence public debate. 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. The Special Rapporteur’s Office of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expressed concern that the excessive frequency of such mechanisms prevented media outlets from choosing what information to disseminate as part of their exercise of free speech. The Special Rapporteur’s Office stated, “If these broadcasts are issued too frequently, the consequence will be that the non-official media will be transmitting the State’s official message permanently, to the detriment of their own editorial line.”
Laws that went into effect in 2011 limited the ownership of media companies. New provisions in the Democracy Code passed during the year placed limits on the ability of the media to provide election coverage during the official campaign period. Civil society organizations challenged these provisions in the Constitutional Court, but the court upheld almost all of the law, although it did affirm the right of the press to conduct interviews and file special reports on candidates and issues during the campaign period. The ruling left in place restrictions on “direct or indirect” promotion of candidates or specific political views.
Violence and Harassment: President Correa frequently used mandated 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. In July the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy (Redlad) asserted that “the Ecuadorian government has persisted in the systematic persecution of civil society organizations, journalists, and media. Freedom of press, association, assembly, and expression are being notoriously threatened in Ecuador.”
Press freedom NGO Fundamedios reported 173 cases of harassment (threats, verbal and physical attacks, or arrests) against journalists or other representatives of the press during the year.
On July 1, unknown assailants shot and killed independent journalist Byron Bolivar Baldeon Solorzano in Guayas Province. Baldeon had been investigating a robbery in which three police officers were among the accused and had offered to serve as a prosecution witness.
On September 19, well-known reporter Janeth Hinostroza announced her withdrawal from her morning news program after receiving anonymous threats for investigating a corruption case in which the cousin of the president, Central Bank Director Pedro Delgado, was allegedly involved. The government offered to provide Hinostroza security personnel for protection, which she refused. After condemning the threats against Hinostroza, President Correa labeled her “an extremely bad journalist” and blamed the climate of violence in the country on the lies spread by the media, which he described as “ink criminals.”
On August 16, Orlando Gomez Leon, editor of La Hora newspaper, received threats via a series of early morning phone calls. Two men on a motorcycle later assaulted Gomez; one of them shouted his name and smashed a mirror on his car with a pipe. Just prior to the threats and assault, Gomez had written articles about the status of freedom of expression in the country.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The relationship between the press and the government was poor. Journalists working at private media companies reported instances of indirect censorship and stated that President Correa’s attacks caused them to practice self-censorship. In June President Correa ordered government ministers to stop granting interviews with private media, stating that private media only served the interests of big business. Civil society leaders filed an action of protection in the court system, protesting the unconstitutionality of the ban. On September 24, Judge Raul Reinoso ruled that the prohibition issued by Correa was “not a public policy but just part of the presidential rhetoric” and concluded that the ban did not violate constitutional rights.
Private media companies reported that the government continued to use tax and labor inspections to harass companies that published reports critical of the government. These investigations forced the companies to undertake time-consuming and costly legal defense. The government also used these regulations to close several media outlets.
On July 6, the Superintendency of Telecommunications shut down Radio Morena, owned by the family of an opposition politician, for nonpayment of frequency licensing fees and a failure to operate according to their concession. Morena’s owners denounced the closure as politically driven and publicly disclosed their fee-payment receipts.
On July 31, Ministry of Labor officials seized computers and other equipment at the office of the popular Vanguardia magazine, alleging violation of laws requiring a minimum number of employees with disabilities. Vanguardia representatives asserted that the closure was politically motivated and claimed that it followed a series of articles they published regarding public corruption. On August 30, Vanguardia representatives filed a lawsuit against President Correa for moral damage based on a comment the president made on his Saturday national television and radio address broadcast on August 4. The president stated “Vanguardia does not pay their workers and violates labor laws.”
The government remained the largest single advertiser in the country and used advertising contracts to reward or punish media companies. On July 28, President Correa announced that the government would no longer advertise in private media. The president also used his Twitter account to encourage his supporters to avoid purchasing private media products, as they were “corrupt.”
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, including libel laws, against media companies, journalists, and private individuals. Fundamedios reported 33 lawsuits against journalists or media companies since 2008, seven 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.
On February 27, President Correa pardoned the four defendants in the El Universo case and the authors of the book Big Brother after national and international outcry over the court rulings in both cases. In 2011 courts had imposed jail terms and multi-million dollar fines in both cases ($40 million in the case of El Universo) for libel and defamation of the president, respectively. When issuing the pardon, the president pointedly noted he would “pardon, but not forget.”
On November 8, the government filed an action of protection against La Hora newspaper, disputing the use of government spending estimates released by a local NGO cited in an October 10 article. The judge ruled in favor of the government on November 12 and required La Hora to publish an apology and a rectification using spending figures provided by the government.
There were no government restrictions on access to the Internet or credible reports that the government monitored e-mail or Internet chat rooms. However, on July 11, the government passed a new telecommunications regulation, requiring that Internet service providers fulfill all information requests from the superintendent of telecommunications, allowing access to client addresses and information without a judicial order. NGOs expressed concern that this new regulation violates principles of privacy and could be used by the government to track online activity of private citizens. The International Telecommunication Union reported that 31 percent of the public used the Internet in 2011.
While individuals and groups could generally engage in the expression of views via the Internet, including by e-mail, the government increasingly monitored Twitter accounts for threats or insults against the president. On August 22, a few hours after a Twitter user denounced President Correa in harsh terms, the president on his own Twitter account requested intelligence authorities to investigate and take judicial action, and the user quickly shut down the account.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.