The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, but the government restricted these rights. The government increasingly used the 2013 communications law to limit the independence of the press.
Freedom of Speech: President Correa and his government intensified verbal and legal attacks against journalists who criticized him during the year. The president regularly stated the press was his “biggest enemy.” During his weekly television and radio address, the president regularly cited individual journalists by name and encouraged government officials and private individuals to raise complaints against the media. NGOs, journalists, and international human rights organizations reported increased pressure from authorities due to criminalization of speech and rising self-censorship that resulted from lawsuits against journalists. On May 23, the Superintendence of Communication (Supercom), the country’s media regulatory body, determined that citizens did not have a right of reply to any statements the president made during his weekly television broadcasts.
Generally, individuals could discuss matters of general public interest publicly or privately without reprisal, although various civil society groups, journalists, and academics argued that the communications law limited their freedom of expression and restricted independent media. New regulatory bodies created under the law monitored and disciplined the media through a combination of legal and administrative sanctions. 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.
A new criminal code went into effect on August 10. Article 176 of the new code establishes a prison sentence of up to three years for those who “disseminate, practice, or incite any distinction, restriction, or preference on grounds of nationality, ethnicity, place of birth, age, sex, gender identity or sexual orientation, cultural identity, marital status, language, religion, ideology, socioeconomic status, immigration status, disability, or health status with the aim of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment, or exercise of equal rights.” According to some legal experts, the article could restrict freedom of speech.
Press Freedoms: Freedom House rated the country as “not free” for a second consecutive year and noted the developments over the past year were more disturbing than just a continuing negative trend. In its April 23 press release of its annual report, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) highlighted freedom of expression in the country as one of the region’s top issues of concern. President Correa continued to attack private newspapers and encouraged followers to buy only public newspapers.
In the first year since the passage of the June 2013 communications law, Supercom issued nearly 30 sanctions against the media. In a controversial February judgment, Supercom forced cartoonist Xavier “Bonil” Bonilla to “correct” a cartoon critical of the Correa administration and fined newspaper El Universo $90,000 for publishing the “inaccurate” caricature, which in Supercom’s view promoted “social unrest.” Prior to Supercom’s action, President Correa had called Bonil a “coward” and “ink assassin” during his weekly national address.
The independent media remained active and expressed a wide variety of views, including those critical of the government, although many analysts and journalists noted the law had led to self-censorship in private media, pointing to a decrease in investigative reporting. On September 17, the Constitutional Court struck down three pending challenges to the communications law, upholding the law’s constitutionality with only minor wording changes to a few clauses. The plaintiffs had claimed the law contravened the constitution, the country’s commitments under international human rights treaties, and a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. They also challenged the government’s assertion that information is a public good rather than a right. The Communications Regulatory Council (Cordicom), the supervisory body responsible for implementing the communications law, released a statement declaring the court ruling “reinforces liberty of expression and other human rights in Ecuador and Latin America” and “breaks up the media monopolies of the past.”
The National Communication Secretariat launched a campaign in mid-July that compiled statements from citizens on the street offering their views on how local media outlets should do their job more effectively. The mandatory broadcasts included one spot in which a citizen advised Alfonso Espinosa de los Monteros, long-time news anchor of Ecuavisa, the country’s leading private television network, to retire. On August 1, Ecuavisa refused to transmit the broadcasts on the basis that they violated the right to honor to which everyone is entitled and other rights provided by law. On August 4, Secretary of Communication Fernando Alvarado apologized in writing to Espinosa de los Monteros and suspended the campaign. On August 11, however, President Correa said the campaign would continue because citizens are entitled to express their views on the media, just as journalists can express their opinions.
On July 30, the president of the Constitutional Court, Patricio Pazmino, prohibited media outlets from discussing matters of indigenous justice without the authorization of indigenous leaders. He noted all media outlets should “communicate the facts by ensuring accuracy and context, comprehensively reporting the ongoing processes and not only acts of punishment.”
On November 10, Ecuavisa broadcast “under protest” a message produced by the Communication Secretariat (Secom) entitled “This is true liberty.” Critics of the piece stated that it appeared to mock bank owners and private media interests for monopolizing freedom of expression. After the piece was broadcast, Ecuavisa broadcast a statement rejecting it for “trying to polarize public opinion” and pointing out that under the Communication Law, the government can order broadcasts only “when it is necessary for the public interest.” The next day, another leading television network, Teleamazonas, broadcast its own statement of protest. On November 12, Cordicom issued a statement saying the Secom spot did not violate the Communications Law. Cordicom also threatened to fine Ecuavisa for “censorship” for having broadcast a critical commentary on the piece.
Provisions in the law limit 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.
The new penal code includes the offense of inciting “financial panic” with a penalty of imprisonment for five to seven years. Some analysts viewed this as a warning to the media in their reporting on financial problems.
The government owned or operated an estimated 20 broadcast 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 communications law limits the ownership of media companies. Specifically, it 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” (yet to be formally defined). Reporters Without Borders, citing official figures, noted in June that the private media held 78 percent of frequencies, the public sector held 20 percent, and community media accounted for 1 percent. Observers claimed the redistribution of frequencies would reduce the private media by almost 50 percent. The government asserted in public statements that information was a public good rather than a right and that the redistribution of frequencies guaranteed a more inclusive and diverse media environment.
Violence and Harassment: President Correa frequently used mandated broadcasts and his public appearances to make personal attacks on specific journalists, criticize the media, question journalists’ competence and professionalism, and accuse the private media of bias. The president repeatedly referred to the independent media as the “corrupt press.” Reporters Without Borders noted 16 smear campaigns against journalists between June 2013 and June 2014, most of them carried out by President Correa during televised declarations.
The NGO Fundamedios reported 253 cases of harassment (threats, verbal and physical attacks, or arrests) against journalists or other representatives of the press during the year.
On April 23, the Guayas Eleventh Criminal Court acquitted four of the five suspects for the killing of journalist Fausto Valdiviezo in April 2013. The fifth suspect remained at large, and his trial was suspended. In 2013 Minister of Interior Serrano indicated that the killing was likely not related to Valdiviezo’s work and suggested that Valdiviezo might have been involved in questionable dealings.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists working at private media companies reported instances of indirect censorship and stated that President Correa’s attacks caused them to practice self-censorship. Reporters Without Borders identified at least 67 press freedom threats targeting journalists and media organizations between June 2013 and June, including nine cases of direct censorship and 18 forced corrections. On August 14, during a press conference in the city of Loja, President Correa refused to answer a question raised by reporter Paulina Bustamante from the newspaper Centinela after she deviated from a set of questions previously scripted by provincial officials.
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. Many private media complained that the government itself can decide what is of “public interest” and thus unduly influence their independent reporting.
During a televised speech following his visit to Chile in May, President Correa accused the press of violating the human rights of citizens by failing to provide them with important information about his trip. Subsequently Supercom accused four newspapers, El Comercio, El Universo, Hoy, and La Hora, of censoring coverage of a public interest event. As of October 27, the case remained in process.
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 remained the largest single advertiser in the country. Media watchdog organizations argued that the government used advertising contracts to reward or punish media companies. On June 28, national daily newspaper Hoy announced it would cease publishing its print edition due to, among other cited reasons, a “permanent boycott in advertisements” by the government. On August 26, the Superintendence of Companies ordered the dissolution of 700 companies, including Edimpres, which owns Hoy, due to losses of at least 50 percent of their capital in 2012 and 2013. According to the Superintendence of Companies, Hoy’s losses in 2013 accounted for 63 percent of its capital, which violated the law. The government argued that Hoy’s closure was due to fiscal mismanagement.
Libel Laws/National Security: The government used legal mechanisms, including libel laws, against media companies, journalists, and private individuals. Libel is a criminal offense under the law with penalties of up to three years in prison, plus fines and other damage awards. As of late October, Fundamedios reported 49 lawsuits against journalists or media companies since 2008, 11 of which were filed during the year.
On January 14, journalist and political activist Fernando Villavicencio, National Assembly member Clever Jimenez, and doctor and social activist Carlos Figueroa lost their final appeal before the National Court of Justice. In April 2013 Jimenez and Villavicencio had been sentenced to 18 months in prison for defamation of the president, while Figueroa received a six-month sentence. They were free pending an appeal in December 2013, when security forces, upon receiving an “urgent action” request from President Correa’s general counsel, raided Villavicencio’s home and confiscated computers and documents. That same night government forces broke into the office of Jimenez, seizing two computers. On January 24, the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the IACHR expressed its concern over the decision by the National Court of Justice, arguing that “the use of criminal law to sanction expressions about public officials is disproportionate and infringes the right to freedom of expression.” On March 24, the IACHR issued precautionary measures, requesting that the government immediately suspend the court ruling until the IACHR could rule on petitions brought by the three men. On April 26, the Sarayaku community condemned the government’s decision to send soldiers into its territory in the Amazon region following the community leaders’ announcement that they were providing refuge to Jimenez, Villavicencio, and Figueroa. Police arrested Figueroa in Quito on July 23 and transferred him to a prison in the capital.
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 by reporters or others, including readers, using their media platforms.
The 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 to apply administrative sanctions.
The government did not disrupt access to the internet, but there were credible reports that the government censored online content and monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. On January 14, a government-run newspaper published electronic documents as part of a report alleging that opposition politician Martha Roldos sought funding for an independent media outlet. She told the Associated Press that she believed someone allied with or in the government was responsible for hacking her e-mail account. On January 23, Roldos filed a complaint against the government-run newspaper that published her private e-mails. Her complaint was based on the “media lynching” provision of the communications law, but Supercom dismissed the complaint on February 11.
A 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 partly free.
While individuals and groups could generally engage in the expression of views via the internet, the government increasingly monitored Twitter and other social media accounts for perceived threats or alleged insults against the president and government officials, a practice that Freedom House called “a form of legal intimidation that stands to result in greater self-censorship online.” Supercom requested on August 22 that Radio Canela, closed in 2011, rectify a comment made via Twitter regarding a possible family nexus between the superintendent of communication and a representative from a building consortium.
Various local press outlets reported on the government’s relationship with a Spanish antipiracy firm named Ares Rights that targeted internet websites, YouTube, and Twitter accounts critical of President Correa or of his government and forced these sites to take down content based on the Digital Millennium Copyrights Act (DMCA). In what many media analysts considered online censorship, Ares Rights sent DMCA takedown notices on behalf of several government officials, targeting documentaries, tweets, and search results that included images of those officials, alleging copyright infringement.
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.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
While there were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, academics reported that concerns over the process of awarding government contracts led to self-censorship.