The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government restricted this right. The government continued to use the communications law to limit the independence of the press.
Freedom of 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 communication law, media outlets are also legally responsible for the opinions of their contributors. Independent of this law, the 2014 criminal code prohibits citizens from threatening or insulting 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 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 Freedom: Freedom House continued to rate the country’s press status as “not free.” Regulatory bodies created under the communication law monitored and disciplined the media through a combination of legal and administrative sanctions. The domestic freedom of expression watchdog group Fundamedios reported 210 “attacks on freedom of expression” through June 30, including sanctions of media outlets under the communications law, cases of restrictions on digital rights, and the “abusive use of State power,” including the withdrawal of official publicity, forced correction, cancellation of frequencies and programs, and arbitrary dismissals of employees. Fundamedios noted that the number of attacks were unusually high during the first semester of the year, especially during the presidential campaign season (between January and April), compared with 2016. Fundamedios also reported that during the first three months of Moreno’s presidency, attacks on the media decreased and the government-aligned public media outlets became more objective and balanced both in their news reporting and in editorial pages. President Moreno encouraged dialogue with the media and specifically called on journalists to report on corruption. Although the communication law remains in place, media outlets reported a reduction in government attacks on the media.
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 under the Correa administration.
The law limits the ability of media to provide election coverage during the official campaign period. A constitutional court ruling in 2012 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 possible legal consequences.
The government administered an estimated 30 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. During the Correa administration, the government increasingly required media stations to broadcast statements by the president and other leaders, thereby reducing the stations’ private paid programming. President Moreno reduced the amount of time required for presidential broadcasts to one 15-minute broadcast weekly. President Moreno replaced the general editor of the state-owned newspaper, El Telegrafo, which traditionally strongly advocated for the government and its policies, with former journalist Fernando Larenas.
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. Government officials asserted in public statements that the redistribution of frequencies guaranteed a more inclusive and diverse media environment. In the previous year, the Agency for Regulation and Control of Telecommunications and the Council for Regulation and Development of Information and Communication (known by its Spanish acronym CORDICOM) initiated a process to adjudicate 1,472 radio and television frequencies. In January well established, private radio outlets Radio Democracia and Radio Vision, among others, were told that they were at risk of losing their frequencies to government-associated community media outlets due to the government adjudication process. Opposition groups protested the government-run tendering process of airwaves for its lack of transparency and for taking place during an election year. As of August 26, the redistribution of frequencies was suspended.
Violence and Harassment: On February 16, media outlets reported that authorities found explosive devices targeting two female journalists, Janeth Hinostroza of Teleamazonas television station and Estefani Espin of Ecuavisa, three days prior to the 2017 general elections. Former president Correa and other high-level government officials criticized journalists and media outlets. In his last national televised address on May 21, Correa tore up a copy of the newspaper La Hora, labeled the media as his “greatest opponent” in his 10-year administration, and asked his followers to promote awareness in citizens to avoid being cheated by the “mercantilist press.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists working at private media companies reported instances of indirect censorship. On May 25, the Superintendence of Information and Communication (Supercom) fined a radio station $3,750 for insulting former president Correa. The director of the radio station, Luis Almeida, asserted that no infractions were committed, as analyst Jaime Verduga was exercising his freedom of thought and expression. Almeida also noted that Verduga repeated Correa’s own words, which were published by the government-owned digital media outlet El Ciudadano.
The 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. Supercom 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. On April 27, three media outlets received a warning in writing from Supercom for transmitting results of exit polls that projected the opposition candidate as winner of the 2017 national elections on April 2. On April 21, Supercom fined seven outlets $3,750 for “prior censorship” due to their decision not to publish a series of articles by Argentine newspaper Pagina 12, alleging that opposition presidential candidate Guillermo Lasso had dozens of offshore accounts. Representatives of the affected media outlets argued that the original story was poorly reported and that the publishing of unverified allegations would have violated the law. The ruling remained in effect as of September 15. On August 24, a district administrative court nullified a $90,000 fine originally levied in 2014 against political cartoonist Bonil (Xavier Bonilla) of the daily newspaper El Universo. The court ruled that “opinions are not meant to inform” and that the constitution guarantees freedom of expression. The head of Supercom, Carlos Ochoa, announced that Supercom would contest the ruling.
The 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.
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. 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. Supercom has the authority to determine if a media outlet is guilty of media lynching and to apply administrative sanctions. On June 5, former president Correa filed a complaint against journalist Martin Pallares for an article he published on April 21, alleging that Pallares uttered expressions in disrepute or dishonor against him, a crime punishable by 15 to 30 days’ imprisonment. On July 3, Judge Fabricio Carrasco found Pallares innocent of the charges of discrediting the president. On July 19, Judge Maximo Ortega de Ferrer accepted Correa’s appeal to review the July 3 ruling.
Actions to Expand Freedom of Expression, including for the Media: On inauguration day President Moreno announced that his government would end former president Correa’s practice of holding multihour, mandatory press events on Saturdays (often used by Correa to attack his opponents, particularly the media). Moreno subsequently highlighted the important role the press plays in the fight against corruption. Moreno invited civil society representatives and government agencies to address differences in opinion regarding the 2013 communication law through a national dialogue. Supercom officials participated in roundtable discussions on communication law reforms. Fundamedios noted in September that reported attacks against freedom of expression dropped more than 50 percent in the first three months of the Moreno administration, compared with the final three months of the Correa administration, adding, “The drastic drop in the number of attacks on freedom of expression reflects a new reality that could translate into an improvement in the exercise of this fundamental right in Ecuador.” Supercom issued fewer sanctions during the first three months of the Moreno administration.
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 government 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 a 54 percent internet usage rate in 2016.
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 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media outlets reported cyberattacks by unknown perpetrators that appeared politically motivated since they occurred during coverage of the 2017 general elections and when content was perceived as critical of the government. On August 25, Fundamedios reported attacks on its digital portal for two consecutive weeks. On May 22, Usuarios Digitales, an internet watchdog organization, reported 160 internet attacks on social networks and digital platforms between April 2016 and March 2017. The website of the national private media group El Comercio was hacked on a regular basis. The organization had a team of digital experts tracking internet attacks on a daily basis.
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 number) 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. On April 17, the Ministry of Interior’s legal office filed a case against Luis Eduardo Vivanco, former editor in chief of La Hora newspaper, based on his tweets that “attempt to disparage the actions carried out by the government in its permanent fight against corruption.” On May 18, Vivanco appeared before the Office of the Public Prosecutor to render his testimony.
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. In December 2016 the National Assembly passed legislation eliminating public funding for research at universities that operate under international agreements. According to human rights organization Freedom House, “The legislation has the potential to undermine the sustainability of two graduate universities, Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar and Universidad Latinoamericana de Posgrado Lider en Ciencias Sociales (commonly referred to as FLACSO Ecuador.)”