The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, but the government restricted these rights. The government continued to use the communications law to limit the independence of the press.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: 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 law limited their freedom of expression and restricted independent media. Under the 2013 communications law, media outlets are also legally responsible for the opinions of their contributors. Independent of this law, it is illegal for citizens 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.
Article 176 of the criminal code that went into effect in August 2015 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 and Media Freedoms: Freedom House continued to rate the country’s press status as “not free.” The domestic freedom of expression watchdog group Fundamedios reported 491 “attacks on freedom of expression” during the year, compared with 499 attacks in 2015. These included 168 sanctions of media outlets under the communications law; 94 cases of restrictions on digital rights, including censorship on the internet and cyber threats; and 88 cases of “abusive use of state power,” including the withdrawal of official publicity, forced correction, cancellation of frequencies and programs, and arbitrary dismissals of employees. President Correa continued to criticize private media outlets and accused them of spreading lies and showing bias against his administration. During his October 22 national weekly address, Correa referred to private television station Teleamazonas as the “corrupt press,” and he stated that he regretted his participation in a Teleamazonas news program on October 16. Regulatory bodies created under the 2013 communications law monitored and disciplined the media through a combination of legal and administrative sanctions.
Independent media remained active and expressed a wide variety of views, including those critical of the government, although many analysts and journalists noted the 2013 law had led to self-censorship in private media, pointing to a decrease in investigative reporting.
Provisions in the law limit the ability of 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 law includes the offense of inciting “financial panic” with a penalty of imprisonment for five to seven years for any person who divulges false information that causes alarm in the population and provokes massive withdrawals of deposits from a financial institution that places at risk the institution’s stability. Some analysts viewed this as a warning to the media in their reporting on the country’s financial problems. Media outlets reported privately that they refrained from some financial reporting due to concern over the possible legal consequences.
The government owned or operated an estimated 27 media outlets 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. Various media outlets also reported pressure from the government to broadcast “voluntary” advertisements or face the risk of losing their broadcast frequencies. According to Fundamedios, many local and indigenous community radio stations stated that their contracts required them to broadcast the president’s weekly address and send to Secom their daily programming list in advance.
The law calls for the redistribution of broadcast frequencies to divide media ownership between private media (33 percent), public media (33 percent), and community media (34 percent). Observers claimed this redistribution of frequencies would reduce the private media by almost 50 percent. The government asserted in public statements that information was a public service rather than a right and that the redistribution of frequencies guaranteed a more inclusive and diverse media environment. During the year the Agency for Regulation and Control of Telecommunications (Arcotel) and the Council of Regulation and Development of Information and Communication (Cordicom) initiated a process to adjudicate 1,472 radio and television frequencies. Media directors stated that the government had either directly or indirectly threatened revocation of their frequencies unless they limited critical coverage of the government. Fundamedios expressed concerns about a perceived lack of independence of Arcotel and Cordicom and a lack of citizen oversight. The NGO also noted that Arcotel planned to announce the results of the frequency competition in December, just a few months before the February 2017 elections, which Fundamedios argued would encourage self-censorship by media outlets. On July 11, Fundamedios called again for the suspension of the contest, noting that the number of applications for frequencies did not reach the number of available frequencies. On August 9, Fundamedios reported that Arcotel denied its request for information and the possibility of citizen oversight. On November 10, opposition legislator Lourdes Tiban called for the suspension of the frequency adjudication process due to allegations of corruption related to the adjudication of a frequency for a private media outlet in Manabi. During a December 2 hearing at the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, press freedom watchdog organizations stated that the frequency adjudication process suffered from a “lack of transparency” and other “irregularities.”
Violence and Harassment: During public appearances and his weekly television and radio address, President Correa regularly questioned journalists’ competence and professionalism and accused the private media of bias. He continued to cite individual journalists by name and encouraged both government officials and private individuals to raise complaints against the media. On September 15, Correa tweeted “cowards” in reference to journalists from the online news site 4Pelagatos, following its publication of a column about Correa’s daughter and an editorial she wrote for state-owned newspaper El Telegrafo. Other Twitter users published threats and the telephone numbers, addresses, and photographs of 4Pelagatos columnists Martin Pallares, Roberto Aguilar, Jose Hernandez, and Gabriel Gonzalez. NGOs, journalists, and international human rights organizations reported continued pressure from authorities against the media that resulted in threats against journalists and sanctions under the communications law. The Inter American Press Association reported that government-produced spots “discredit, harass, and persecute journalists, politicians, and media outlets.”
On June 30, the Inter-American Platform of Human Rights, Democracy, and Development (PIDHDD) reported that unknown officials charged with enforcing the law temporarily detained journalist and human rights activist Mayra Caiza as she was taking photographs near the Turi detention center in Cuenca, as part of her investigation into the alleged torture against prisoners during a police operation on May 31. During her brief detention, the officials interrogated Caiza and deleted her photographs, including those not related to the Turi case. The PIDHDD requested further information about Caiza’s detention from the interior and justice ministries and the Attorney General’s Office. As of August 31, no further information was publicly available on any actions taken by the government.
On October 20, police stopped Ramiro Cueva, director of Ecotel TV, in Loja while he was in his vehicle. Video footage showed transit agents and police pushing Cueva to the ground and then a police officer placing his knee in Cueva’s groin while Cueva lay on the ground. Transit agents stated that Cueva’s vehicle was stopped because the vehicle’s inspection was not up to date. According to Cueva, the deadline for the inspection was December 31, and his car’s registration ran through 2019. Following the police operation, individuals at the scene placed Cueva in an ambulance so he could receive medical treatment. In December 2015 police and telecommunications regulators raided Ecotel TV and seized transmission equipment. According to Ecotel administrators, the government’s actions were in response to Ecotel’s late payment of a $151 licensing fee in 2002. The raid on Ecotel occurred just three days after President Correa attacked Cueva during a public address. Correa accused Cueva of lies and “politics masked as journalism” for an Ecotel report claiming that authorities covertly transported desks and furniture from one school to a new school the government inaugurated.
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.
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 could decide what is of “public interest” and thus unduly influence their independent reporting. After opposition politicians claimed that state-owned Ecuador TV’s coverage of ruling party Alianza PAIS’ political convention on October 1 violated election laws for an alleged use of public resources, Nadia Ruiz, acting director of RTV Ecuador Empresa Publica, stated that coverage of the convention was of “public interest.” She noted that Ecuador TV did not transmit the conventions for two opposition movements because they “only confirmed the precandidates for the presidency.” Oscar Bonilla, Alianza PAIS secretary of political action, claimed that covering the convention was “a responsible exercise of communication,” but private media “sought to diminish” the event.
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.
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.
Private media outlets reported that the government continued to use tax and labor inspections to harass outlets that published reports critical of the government. These investigations forced the outlets to undertake time-consuming and costly legal defenses.
Libel/Slander Laws: The government used 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. The law assigns responsibility to media owners, who are liable for opinion pieces or statements by reporters or others, including readers, using their media platforms.
On January 4, Judge Oswaldo Saritama Naula sentenced Loja municipal council member Jeannine del Cisne Cruz Vaca to 30 days in prison for discrediting the honor of Loja mayor Jose Bolivar Castillo. On September 21, Cruz had tweeted, “Mayor Jose Bolivar Castillo... all we ask…is that you stop lying and stealing.” On February 1, a criminal court in Loja ratified the 30-day prison sentence against Cruz.
On September 5, Quito vice mayor Eduardo del Pozo received a 15-day prison sentence for “discrediting the honor” of President Correa. According to Caupolican Ochoa, President Correa’s lawyer, during a June 10 radio interview, Del Pozo had accused Correa of manipulating legal cases to obtain money, not paying taxes, and moving money to tax havens, which damaged Correa’s honor and dignity. Del Pozo claimed the decision by Judge Maximo Ortega was “political persecution for thinking differently.”
The law includes a prohibition of “media lynching,” described 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 the authority to determine if a media outlet is guilty of media lynching and to apply administrative sanctions.
On August 8, the Superintendency of Information and Communications (Supercom) sanctioned television station Teleamazonas and journalist Janet Hinostroza on the basis of “media lynching” for distributing “damaging information to the prestige and credibility” of the National Public Procurement Service (SERCOP). The Supercom resolution indicated that two news programs released “concerted and repeated information on a reverse auction process of medicines, generating the perception that the process did not consider the quality of the pharmaceuticals” and did not allow for sufficient participation of SERCOP sources. Supercom ordered Teleamazonas to issue public apologies on the news programs, while Hinostroza received a written warning. The National Union of Journalists (UNP) criticized the Supercom decision as “another violation against freedom of expression.” The UNP noted that the Supercom action occurred two days after President Correa called Teleamazonas’ coverage “clear media lynching” during his August 6 national weekly address. In a subsequent interview with the Committee to Protect Journalists, Hinostroza stated that the ruling “demonstrates that in Ecuador it is not possible to do [investigative journalism],” adding that the communications law’s intent is “to silence journalists that make [the government] uncomfortable.”
The government did not restrict or 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. A regulation requires that internet service providers comply with all information requests from the superintendent of telecommunications, allowing access to client addresses and information without a judicial order. Freedom House evaluated the internet as partly free. The International Telecommunication Union reported that 49 percent of the public used the internet in 2015.
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. Some NGOs and media outlets reported cyberattacks by unknown perpetrators that appeared politically motivated, since they occurred during coverage of antigovernment protests and when content was perceived as critical of the government. On January 29, the Human Rights Foundation released a public statement condemning multiple distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks on Fundamedios, days after the NGO launched a website that compiled alleged government attacks on independent media during 2015. On October 15, the Inter American Press Association reported that online portals Focus Ecuador, Mil Hojas, Plan V, and 4Pelagatos suffered cyberattacks during the year.
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). The National Secretariat of Communication and 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. On August 8, Fundamedios reported 806 complaints against 292 Twitter accounts between April 18 and July 21. According to Fundamedios, multiple complaints against certain Twitter accounts were directed at users who were critical of the government and had a high number of followers.
The law holds a media outlet responsible for online comments from readers if the 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 they can verify the author of the information.
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 intimidated academics into practicing self-censorship.