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. On February 20, reforms to the 2013 communication law went into effect, repealing several provisions seen as severely limiting freedom of expression and press. Experts cautioned, however, that other restrictive provisions to journalistic work found in the 2013 law remained in effect, including Article 5 characterizing 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 that carries a prison term of six months to two years, also remained in force.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals could usually discuss matters of general public 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 expression during the year.
Press and Media Freedom, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, including those critical of the government.
On February 5, the independent watchdog organization Freedom House classified the country as partially free. Journalists continued to report harassment, particularly by supporters of the previous government or unknown persons, although attacks on reporters continued to decline.
The domestic freedom of expression watchdog group Fundamedios registered 289 attacks on freedom of expression from May 2018 to October 2019, compared with 491 attacks in 2016. As of October 14, Fundamedios quantified “attacks” ranging from court sentences against media or journalists (three instances); physical attacks or intimidation against journalists (104 instances); verbal threats and insults (47 instances); to cyberthreats, hacks, or closure of social media accounts (30 instances as of August). While the complete data did not link attacks to a perpetrator, no attacks in the data available were categorized as “abuses of power from the state.”
During violent protests against the government’s economic reforms between October 3-13, Fundamedios reported 116 attacks against journalists and media outlets, largely by demonstrators or other unknown persons, related to journalists’ coverage of events. Protesters attacked and attempted to burn the headquarters of the Teleamazonas television station and the El Comercio newspaper in Quito on October 12. Protesters in Quito held 27 journalists hostage on October 10, threatening them with violence if they did not provide live broadcasting of their demands; all of the journalists were released without physical harm.
The law limits the ability of media to provide election coverage during the official campaign period, with no coverage allowed whatsoever in the 48 hours before 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 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 place at risk the institution’s stability.
The law mandates the television and radio broadcast of messages and reports by the president and his cabinet free of charge. President Moreno reduced the amount of time required for presidential broadcasts to one 15-minute weekly program from the three- to four-hour weekly program by his predecessor.
Reforms to the 2013 communications law on spectrum allocations addressed past concerns about excessive spectrum being potentially allocated to state media. The reforms call for the redistribution of broadcast frequencies to divide media ownership between community media (up to 34 percent), private media and public media (up to 66 percent combined). Maximum figures under the reform are subject to demand and availability. Nonetheless, the reforms limit the allocation of radio frequencies to the public sector to no more than 10 percent of the spectrum. On August 29, Minister of Telecommunications Andres Michelena announced the frequency redistribution process was underway.
Violence and Harassment: On June 28, supporters of then president Jose Tuarez of the Citizen Participation and Social Control Council (CPCCS) pushed and screamed at journalists from several media outlets while he participated in a press conference in Guayaquil. On July 5, Tuarez accused some media members of being “corrupt” during his official tour to Manabi Province. He further accused outlets of “media lynching” (see “Libel/Slander Laws” subsection below) over published stories that Tuarez altered his credentials to bolster his candidacy for the CPCCS presidency. Separately, Tuarez was removed from his position as CPCCS president by the National Assembly on August 15 for “breach of duties and lack of probity.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were reports government officials tried to penalize those who published items critical of the government. On May 17, the Health Ministry’s National Agency of Sanitary Control (ARCSA) filed a criminal lawsuit against Luis Eduardo Vivanco and three other journalists from digital media outlet La Posta. ARCSA officials complained La Posta published “discrediting expressions” in an article alleging irregularities in medical supply acquisitions. President Moreno requested the resignation of ARCSA executive director Juan Carlos Galarza the same day, citing the criminal lawsuit against La Posta. The Communication Secretariat in the Office of the Presidency issued a statement noting it valued freedom of expression and would “not tolerate any stances against it.”
On October 8, police confiscated with a judicial warrant the transmitting equipment of Pichincha Universal, a public radio station under the control of the Prefecture of Pichincha, whose prefect was subsequently detained October 14 on charges of “rebellion,” based on the claim by the Public Prosecutor’s Office that the radio station violated the law by “inciting unrest” during violent antigovernment protests. The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed concern on October 10 about the suspension of the radio station’s transmission, which “could constitute an act of censorship.” On October 25, a judge issued a preliminary injunction, and the radio station returned to the air.
Digital outlet La Fuente reported to Fundamedios that it had received an email, allegedly from someone in the Office of the Presidency, that its website was being suspended temporarily on July 11 due to alleged violations of copyright laws for using certain graphics without authorization in several of its reports. La Fuente resumed online operations the following day.
On February 25, a regional law firm reported that the reforms to the 2013 communications law repealed some prior censorship measures. For example, the reform introduced the concept of “self-regulation,” defined as the balance between responsibility and freedom of information, which media outlets must regulate through the drafting of voluntary codes of ethics.
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 (as private individuals can initiate complaints against advertisers) 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. February 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.”
There was one report a government official used libel laws against a journalist. Esmeraldas Province authorities confirmed journalist Henry Cordova was detained on September 8 to serve a 20-day prison sentence in lieu of paying a $5,000 fine, stemming from a November 2018 ruling in which Cordova was found guilty of libel against national assemblyperson at the time (now Esmeraldas prefect) Roberta Zambrano.
On September 11, the Constitutional Court overturned a 2012 ruling against Diario La Hora. The National Secretary of Public Administration argued in 2012 that the outlet published information (about the then government’s propaganda expenses) that hurt the institution’s reputation. The court’s September 11 decision highlighted that only humans, not institutions, have rights. Legal experts argued the decision sets a precedent in favor of free speech.
Nongovernmental Impact: On April 16, President Moreno reported that a truth commission from the Attorney General’s Office would investigate the kidnapping and killing of El Comercio journalists by a narcoguerilla group in March and April 2018.
Actions to Expand Freedom of Expression, including for the media: President Moreno signed the Chapultepec Declaration on February 20, reiterating his commitment to press freedom. On April 29, representatives from several government agencies, including the Presidency’s General Secretariat for Communication, Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility, and Council for Regulation, Development, and Promotion of Information and Communication, signed an agreement to set up a national Committee for the Protection of Journalists. The committee drafts security protocols, provides training, and specifies the investigation of threats against journalists. On May 31, the committee held its first meeting, open to the public, in which the government’s then secretary general for communication Andres Michelena reiterated the committee’s dedication to journalists’ defense and protection.
In May UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression David Kaye submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Council based upon his October 2018 visit to the country. The report recognized the “significant progress” in the government’s effort “to put an end to…violations of the right to freedom of expression, and to reverse their effects.”
In July the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of newspaper El Universo in a case previously brought against it by then president Rafael Correa, who had accused El Universo of damaging his reputation following an editorial piece by journalist Emilio Palacio that analyzed the public clashes between police and national government in September 2011 (30-S).