Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
While the constitution and the law prohibit torture and similar forms of intimidation and punishment, there were reports that police officers and prison guards tortured and abused suspects and prisoners.
In two cases stemming from arrests relating to the violent October 2019 protests, victims reported to NGOs and international organizations alleged police kidnappings and torture or other forms of degrading treatment during police interrogations. Human rights activists asserted that as of August 17, officials had not investigated these claims. On January 14, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released a preliminary report from its state-sponsored October 2019 visit on reported abuses relating to the 2019 protests. Numerous detainees claimed authorities abused them through verbal threats, beatings with fists and metal truncheons, and forced physical exercises. The IACHR noted that judicial authorities in some cases did not record evidence presented by victims. Local human rights organizations reported that torture continued to occur in prisons, especially at Turi Prison in Azuay Province. On February 27, Azuay Public Prosecutor Leonardo Amoroso stated that contrary to official accounts claiming six prisoners died on February 20 in the prison by suicide, a forensic report (indicating one prisoner whose liver had burst) suggested the prisoners might have died as the result of torture, but he did not speculate who may have been responsible for the deaths. As of October 27, an inquiry request from human rights organizations to the Ombudsman’s Office on the case was pending.
On October 13, media reported a female police officer in Duran, Guayas Province, assaulted a female street vendor with a disability, who was tied to a pole, by placing her hands on the vendor’s buttocks while observers ridiculed the vendor and poured water over her head. The offending officer was dismissed from her duties the same day. On October 14, the public prosecutor launched an investigation and arrested two additional suspects involved in the incident.
The Internal Affairs Unit of the National Police investigates whether police killings are justifiable and can refer cases to the Attorney General’s Office to pursue prosecutions. An intelligence branch within the military has a role similar to the police internal affairs unit. The law states that the Attorney General’s Office must be involved in all human rights abuse investigations, including unlawful killings and forced disappearance. Although the National Police’s Internal Affairs division is designed to investigate complaints of police abuses, human rights defenders reported these units often failed to conduct investigations adequately. Activists stated follow-up on abuse claims was difficult due to high staff turnover in the Internal Affairs Unit.
Although impunity was not a significant problem in the security forces, human rights NGOs and civil society groups reported the lack of prosecutions against police officers who allegedly used excessive force against demonstrators during October 2019 protests could be interpreted as impunity. The government did not announce further actions taken to address general public concern about alleged human rights abuses during the October 2019 protests.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
While the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, outside pressure and corruption impaired the judicial process. Legal experts, bar associations, and NGOs reported on the susceptibility of the judiciary to bribes for favorable decisions and faster resolution of legal cases. No updates were available through September 18 on the selection of permanent replacement of Judicial Council members after 23 of 36 evaluated judges were deemed not to have met the minimum qualification threshold in November 2019 and were replaced by temporary judges from lower courts appointed by the council.
On January 29, six former police officials convicted for “paralyzing a public service” during a 2010 police protest known as 30-S were released from prison on appeal. All of the officers declared they would seek to reintegrate into the police force. On June 29, four other former police officials sentenced to 12 years in prison in the same incident presented a revision appeal to the National Court of Justice. The appellants, after serving nearly six years in prison, were released as they awaited the court’s ruling, which was pending as of October 27.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, although delays occurred frequently. The law presumes a defendant innocent until proven guilty. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly of the charges in detail. The accused have the right to consult with an attorney or to have one provided and to appeal. Defendants have the right to free assistance from an interpreter, but some defendants complained about the lack of an interpreter at court hearings. Defendants have the right to adequate time and resources to prepare their defense, although in practice this was not always the case, and delays in providing translation services made this difficult for some foreign defendants. Foreigners also often faced a language barrier with their public defenders, which impaired their ability to present a defense. Defendants have the right to be present at their trial. The accused may also present evidence and call witnesses, invoke the right against self-incrimination, and confront and cross-examine witnesses.
Judges reportedly rendered decisions more quickly or more slowly due to political pressure or fear in some cases. There were reported delays of up to one year in scheduling some trials.
Criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing congested dockets in criminal cases produced “simplified” proceedings in pretrial stages, resulting in faster resolution of cases. Prisoners reported that after cases reached a higher court, however, lengthy delays ensued in setting dates for preliminary hearings.
The regular court system tried most defendants, although some indigenous groups judged members independently under their own community rules for violations that occurred in indigenous territory, as provided under the constitution.
The court system slowed considerably due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with all courts initially moving to remote working conditions. Defendants’ counsels complained this format inhibited their ability to represent their clients adequately, and several noted that new procedural rules were inconsistently and sometimes arbitrarily applied. By June some courts had returned to in-person appearances, but judges in at-risk health or demographic categories continued to telework.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits such actions, and there were no reports the government failed to respect these prohibitions.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but other laws restrict this right. Experts cautioned that restrictive provisions to journalistic work found in a 2013 communication law, reformed in February 2019, remained in effect, including Article 5, which characterizes media and communications as a public service, not a right, and a provision requiring all journalists to hold university degrees. Restrictive provisions found in other laws, such as punishing opinions as slander, which carries a prison term of six months to two years, also remained in force.
Human rights activists noted that national curfews and movement restrictions enacted during the October 2019 protests, and in place to varying degrees since March 17 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, meant for security and public health reasons, in effect set a series of de facto restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, and freedom of movement (see section 2.b.).
Freedom of Speech: Individuals could usually discuss matters of general interest publicly or privately without reprisal. The law prohibits citizens from using “discrediting expressions,” treated as a misdemeanor with a 15- to 30-day prison term. There were no reports the government invoked this law to restrict freedom of speech during the year.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, including those critical of the government.
The domestic freedom of expression monitoring group Fundamedios reported that due to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, public and private media companies in July reduced staff, including journalists, press support, and administrative staff, among others. According to Fundamedios, the staffing cuts adversely affected press freedom because critical views of the government decreased as a result of the reductions.
The law limits media’s ability to provide election coverage during the official campaign period, with no coverage allowed in the 48 hours preceding a national election. 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 the ruling 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 from 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 put the institution’s stability at risk.
The law mandates television and radio broadcast of messages and reports by the president and his cabinet are to be free of charge. After taking office in 2017, President Moreno reduced the amount of time required for presidential broadcasts to one 15-minute weekly program, compared with the three- to four-hour weekly program by his predecessor.
Reforms to the 2013 communications law enacted in 2019 on spectrum allocations addressed past concerns about the potential excessive allocation of spectrum to state media. The reforms call for the redistribution of broadcast frequencies to divide media ownership between community media (up to 34 percent) and private and public media (up to 66 percent combined). Maximum figures under the reform are subject to demand and availability. The reforms limit the allocation of radio frequencies to the public sector to no more than 10 percent of the spectrum.
On May 15, the Agency for the Regulation and Control of Telecommunications (ARCOTEL) began a competitive public tender to allocate 3,196 radio frequencies. Fundamedios and other civil society groups criticized the bidding process as lacking transparency and allowing a small number of bidders to accumulate a disproportionate number of frequencies. These groups noted the potential agglomeration of radio frequencies under one domain threatened freedom of expression by reinstalling self-censorship among media outlets. On September 18, the National Assembly initiated an audit of the bidding process. On October 5, ARCOTEL director Xavier Aguirre announced postponement of the bidding process for 25 days to review bidders’ qualifications and review government and civil society inquiries about the process. On November 13, ARCOTEL stated on its website 70 percent of participants (of a total of 621) for the radio frequencies tender complied with all the requisites to obtain their qualifying title, which are valid for 15 years. The remaining 30 percent may ask for a second review of their application.
Violence and Harassment: Human Rights Watch reported police in Guayaquil used apparent excessive force to break up a May 14 peaceful protest against the government’s COVID-19 response and education budget cuts. According to Fundamedios, police attacked two journalists from the daily newspaper Diario Expreso and a photographer for the CDH.
In a December 2019 report, Fundamedios stated the October 2019 violent antigovernment protests led to a resurgence in stigmatization and hateful speech against journalists and media last experienced during former president Correa’s administration. This speech was broadly attributed to the protesters and their supporters, rather than to the Moreno government. Phrases such as “corrupt press” and “sold-out press” were frequently replicated across broad sectors and on social media during the October 2019 protests and carried forward throughout the year. Verbal attacks instilled “a mistrust by the citizenry towards reporters, especially those who belong to some traditional media outlets.” Some journalists said they avoided covering politically charged protests due to fear of suffering physical attacks, as seen during the October 2019 protests.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were reports government officials tried to penalize those who published items critical of the government. Fundamedios reported five potential censorship cases involving government officials through August 11. While four cases did not involve legal action or penalties, in one instance a Chimborazo provincial council official filed a criminal complaint against two journalists for publishing a report on corrupt acts in Riobamba, capital of Chimborazo Province.
On September 2, the Constitutional Court overturned a 2012 decision issued by the Contentious Electoral Tribunal (TCE) that fined Vistazo news magazine $80,000 for publishing an editorial rejecting the 2011 government-led referendum on proposed reforms to the judiciary branch three days before the vote was held. After initially ruling in the magazine’s favor, stating an opinion editorial cannot be considered “political propaganda,” the TCE reversed its decision after the then president Correa replaced the TCE’s judges. In its September ruling, the Constitutional Court found the TCE responsible for violating the rights of due process and freedom of expression. The ruling also exhorted government officials to emphasize freedom of expression around the electoral process. A Vistazo legal representative told local media, “This decision sets a precedent that media outlets must express their opinions without self-censorship.”
The law imposes local content quotas on 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 by a judge 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: 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 February 2019 reforms to the 2013 communications law repealed a prohibition of “media lynching,” described as the “coordinated and repetitive dissemination of information, directly or by third parties through media, intended to discredit a person or company or reduce its public credibility.” Monitoring organizations reported that as of August 17, the government had not used libel laws against journalists.
On July 13, an attorney representing the Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht sued the investigative journalist and director of Investigative Journalism online portal, Fernando Villavicencio, for defamation after Villavicencio published an August 2019 report on the private company’s return to the country in 2010 after its 2008 expulsion. The report alleged the company paid $20 million to the Correa government in exchange for generous debt forgiveness terms and cessation of investigations. The Moreno government barred Odebrecht from further operations in the country in January 2019, weeks after Odebrecht officials confessed to U.S. authorities of orchestrating an international corruption network for many years.
In 2019 the Constitutional Court overturned a 2012 ruling against the newspaper Diario La Hora. The National Secretary of Public Administration successfully argued in 2012 that the outlet published information about the then government’s propaganda expenses that damaged the secretariat’s reputation. The court’s decision highlighted that only humans, not institutions, have rights. Legal experts argued the decision set a precedent in favor of free speech.
Actions to Expand Freedom of Expression, including for Media: The National Committee for the Protection of Journalists, a joint government-civil society committee formed in 2019, reconvened on August 11 to discuss ways to protect journalists from threats for reporting on corruption and other sensitive issues. The committee agreed to integrate representatives from the Attorney General’s Office and Judicial Council and, if applicable, activate police intervention to provide protection and support for affected journalists.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights, although the government imposed some restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Human rights defenders reported a state of emergency enacted on March 17 to control the spread of COVID-19 included de facto restrictions on freedom of assembly and association, as well as freedom of movement. The government instituted nationwide curfews effective seven days a week. Restrictions on freedom of assembly and association limited the number of persons in public places and private residences. President Moreno extended the state of emergency in 60- and 30-day increments through September 12. In an August 25 decision, the Constitutional Court prohibited the president from renewing the state of emergency using the same grounds as the previous requests, ruling the state of emergency “cannot be extended indefinitely through decrees that extend the state of exception or that declare new ones,” as the state needed to transition to a condition allowing “the enjoyment and exercise of constitutional rights threatened (under a state of emergency).”