The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, but the government restricted these rights.
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.” 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. Government officials, in their capacity as “private citizens,” sometimes brought lawsuits against the media. NGOs and international human rights organizations continued to express concerns regarding criminalizing speech and the chilling effect that lawsuits had on many journalists.
Generally, individuals could criticize the government publicly or privately without reprisal, although a new communications law passed in June restricted the open space for criticism. This new law creates new regulatory bodies with the power to monitor and discipline the media through a combination of legal and administrative sanctions. According to Human Rights Watch, the law “seriously undermines free speech” and limits freedom of expression. Independent of this law, it is illegal to threaten or insult the president or executive branch, and penalties for violators range from six months to two years imprisonment or a fine from $16 to $77.
Press Freedoms: The independent media generally remained active and expressed a wide variety of views, including those critical of the government. Freedom House downgraded its evaluation of the country from “partly free” in 2012 to “not free” in 2013, noting a dramatic drop in press freedom over the last five years. 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 increasingly required media stations to broadcast statements by the president and other leaders, thereby reducing the stations’ private paid programming. The Special Rapporteur’s Office of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) 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 nonofficial media will be transmitting the State’s official message permanently, to the detriment of their own editorial line.”
The law limits the ownership of media companies. The new communications law redefines the assignment of broadcast frequencies, giving 33 percent of frequencies to private media, 33 percent to public media, and 34 percent to community broadcasting. Observers claimed the redistribution of frequencies could reduce the private media by approximately 50 percent. The government asserted in public statements that information was a public good rather than a right.
Provisions in the Democracy Code placed limits on the ability of the media to provide election coverage during the official campaign period. A Constitutional Court ruling affirmed the right of the press to conduct interviews and file special reports on candidates and issues during the campaign period, but it 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 the private media of bias. During the year Correa referred to journalists as “sick,” “ignorant,” “sinister,” and “liars.” The president repeatedly referred to the independent media as the “corrupt press.”
As of December 12, press-freedom NGO Fundamedios reported 174 cases of harassment (threats, verbal and physical attacks, or arrests) against journalists or other representatives of the press.
On April 11, long-time investigative journalist Fausto Valdiviezo was killed in front of his mother’s house in Guayaquil. Interior Minister Jose Serrano indicated that the killing was likely not related to Valdiviezo’s work and suggested that Valdiviezo might have been involved in questionable dealings. Colleagues of Valdiviezo requested that the Prosecutor’s Office conduct a more thorough investigation, and journalism organizations voiced fears that his death might have been an act of retaliation for his work uncovering underground criminal networks. On September 25, a judge released three suspects from detention, although they still faced charges as accessories to the murder and were required to report periodically to the court. The judge released another suspect and dropped all charges against him. One suspect remained in custody, while the alleged mastermind of the crime remained at large.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The relationship between the press and the government was poor, due to considerable government pressure and legal and administrative actions against the press. Journalists working at private media companies reported instances of indirect censorship and stated that President Correa’s attacks caused them to practice self-censorship.
The communications law requires the media to “cover and broadcast facts of public interest” and defines the failure to do so as a form of prior censorship. The superintendent of information and communications decides prior censorship cases and can impose fines.
The communications law also imposes local content quotas on the media, including a requirement that a minimum of 60 percent of content on television and 50 percent of radio content be produced domestically. Additionally, the law requires that advertising be produced domestically and prohibits any advertising deemed to be sexist, racist, or discriminatory in nature. Furthermore, the Ministry of Public Health must approve all advertising for food or health products.
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 continued to use these regulations to close media outlets. Journalists claimed that the government additionally used the broadcast-spectrum renewal process as a subjective political evaluation of each station rather than as a technical review.
On August 8, the National Communications Council ordered Ecotel Radio in the province of Loja to cease broadcasting on its frequency, claiming the station had not made required technical adjustments to comply with its license. Ecotel Director Ramiro Cueva maintained the shutdown was illegal, since the station had a pending case with the administrative appeals body, which should have kept their frequency concession valid until the matter was decided. Cueva also claimed that the closure was politically motivated due to the station’s critical editorial line. On August 12, a Loja court rejected an injunction filed by Cueva to prevent the station’s closure. Nearly 100 police officers raided the station on December 5 to seize Ecotel equipment.
The government remained the largest single advertiser in the country and used advertising contracts to reward or punish media companies.
Libel Laws/National Security: The government increasingly used legal mechanisms, including libel laws, against media companies, journalists, and private individuals. Fundamedios reported 43 lawsuits against journalists or media companies since 2008, five of which were filed during the year. Libel is a criminal offense under the law with penalties of up to three years in prison, plus fines and other damage awards.
On April 17, a National Court of Justice (CNJ) judge sentenced National Assembly member Clever Jimenez to 18 months in prison on charges of slander, ruling that parliamentary immunity did not apply in the case. The suit, brought personally by President Correa, was based upon a 2011 lawsuit Jimenez had filed against Correa, in which Jimenez claimed that on September 30, 2010, Correa himself ordered the military to stage a rescue of him from a police hospital, an event that resulted in several injuries and deaths. The judge ordered Jimenez and activist Fernando Villavicencio, who was also sentenced to 18 months, to pay reparations of approximately $120,000, and make an apology in the national media. The judge sentenced activist Carlos Figueroa to a lesser sentence and fines. On July 24, the CNJ denied Jimenez’ initial appeal, although Jimenez and his codefendants filed a final appeal within the CNJ.
The law includes criminal libel charges, which may be used to criminalize opinion. The communications law assigns prior responsibility to media owners who are liable for opinion pieces or statements made by reporters or others, including readers, using their media platforms.
The new communications law includes a prohibition of “media lynching,” which the law describes as the “coordinated and repetitive dissemination of information, directly or by third parties through the media, intended to discredit a person or company or reduce its public credibility.” The exact terms of this provision remained vaguely defined but threatened to limit the media’s ability to conduct investigative reporting. The superintendent of information and communication has authority to determine if a media outlet is guilty of media lynching and apply administrative sanctions.
In response to a May 31 headline that read, “Correa calls gay marriage a novelty,” the Secretariat of Communication and President Correa accused Hoy newspaper of misrepresenting the president’s words. Human Rights Ombudsman Ramiro Rivadeneira filed a complaint against Hoy on June 19, claiming the paper had infringed on the rights of the LGBT community through its inaccurate reporting. Judge Veronica Medina accepted the complaint and ordered Hoy to issue an apology and correction. The newspaper complied with the judicial order with an apology to the LGBT community titled, “Hoy apologizes to the LGBT [community], whom we did not offend.” President Correa dismissed Hoy’s apology as shallow and stated that the paper would have to apologize again and pay a fine for all the legal expenses incurred by the government.
In September an NGO presented a lawsuit brought by 60 citizens against the communications law. The suit asserts that the law contravenes the constitution and the country’s commitments under international human rights treaties as well as an Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling. The suit also challenges the government’s assertion that information is a public good rather than a right. At year’s end the Court had not addressed the complaint.
There were no government restrictions on access to the internet or credible reports that the government monitored e-mail or internet chat rooms without appropriate legal authority. A 2012 telecommunications regulation requires that internet service providers fulfill all information requests from the superintendent of telecommunications, allowing access to client addresses and information without a judicial order. The International Telecommunication Union reported that 35 percent of the public used the internet in 2012. The NGO Freedom House evaluated the internet as partially free.
While individuals and groups could generally engage in the expression of views via the internet, including by e-mail, the government increasingly monitored Twitter and other social media accounts for perceived threats or alleged insults against the president, a practice that Freedom House called “a form of legal intimidation that stands to result in greater self-censorship online.” The communications law holds the media responsible for online comments from readers if the media outlet has not established mechanisms for commenters to register their personal data (including national identification card) or created a system to delete offensive comments. The law also prohibits the media from using information obtained from social media unless the author of the information can be verified. According to Freedom House, “There are no specific laws criminalizing online content; however, standard defamation laws apply to content posted online and are sometimes invoked by the government.” Government officials also suggested social media be regulated and defamation on these sites be punishable under the penal code, with sentences of up to two years in prison.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events. Academics reported that intimidation by government officials, including President Correa, and concerns over the process of awarding government contracts created a chilling effect and led to self-censorship.