Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but other laws restrict this right. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported the 2013 communication law “institutionalized repressive mechanisms, established state regulation of editorial content, and gave authorities the power to impose arbitrary sanctions and censor the press.” During a visit in August, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) rapporteur for freedom of expression, Edison Lanza, highlighted improvements in freedom of expression but said the 2013 law would remain a “freedom of expression guillotine” unless adequately reformed. The rapporteur also noted the need for reforms to the criminal code’s treatment of “slander” and “insult,” which do not meet international standards. A Constitutional Court ruling in August to repeal 2015 constitutional amendments re-established communication as a right and not a public service.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals could usually discuss matters of general public interest publicly or privately without reprisal, although various civil society groups, journalists, and academics argued the law limited their freedom of expression and restricted independent media. Under the 2013 law, media outlets are legally responsible for the opinions of their contributors. 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 of $16 to $77. There were no reports the government invoked these laws to restrict freedom of expression during the year.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, including those critical of the government.
On January 16, independent watchdog organization Freedom House classified the country as partially free. Although the 2013 law remains in place, journalists reported attacks on the media decreased and that government-aligned public media outlets were more objective and balanced in both their news reporting and editorial pages. The domestic freedom of expression watchdog group Fundamedios registered 156 attacks on freedom of expression from May 2017 to May 2018. This was down from 499 and 491 attacks on freedom of expression reported in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
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.
The law mandates the 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. In July 2017 President Moreno replaced the general editor of the state-owned newspaper El Telegrafo, which traditionally strongly advocated for the Correa administration and its policies.
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). In August 2017 the redistribution of frequencies was suspended following protests by opposition groups about the lack of transparency in the government-run tendering process for airwaves. On May 28, the Office of the Comptroller General annulled the awarding of broadcast frequencies from 2016 to August 2017, citing multiple irregularities. During a visit in August, the IACHR freedom of expression rapporteur noted that under former president Correa there were obvious irregularities in the awarding of broadcast frequencies and emphasized that the state did not need one-third of the available frequencies to inform the public.
Violence and Harassment: On July 20, two reporters from online political news blog La Posta began to receive threatening telephone calls and online attacks against their website following their announcement of a crowdfunding campaign for a trip to Belgium to investigate former president Correa. The harassment included the posting of pictures of their residences and personal telephone numbers in addition to threats of harm against them and their family members. On July 24, the reporters filed a complaint with the Office of the Public Prosecutor.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: In contrast with 2017, the government did not penalize those who published items counter to government guidelines described by the law. There also were no reports of direct or indirect government censorship of media. On May 14, President Moreno announced the elimination of the Superintendence of Information and Communication (SUPERCOM). This control entity issued 429 monetary fines against media outlets and reporters between 2014 and 2017. On March 7, the T-CPCCS unanimously dismissed the former head of SUPERCOM, Carlos Ochoa, based on a December 2017 ruling by the Comptroller General’s Office that found Ochoa guilty of improper use of public resources and fined him $115,810 for his purchase of a private vehicle with funds from a state television station.
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. 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: In contrast with 2017, there were no reports 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 rule remained vaguely defined but threatened to limit the media’s ability to conduct investigative reporting.
Nongovernmental Impact: On April 13, President Moreno confirmed the deaths of three members of a local news team who were kidnapped on March 26 by a narcoguerrilla group called the Oliver Sinisterra Front, led by Walter Arizala, alias “Guacho.” The team was kidnapped while reporting on drug-related violence in Esmeraldas Province along the northern border with Colombia. President Moreno requested the IACHR’s technical support for investigation of the incident. In July the IACHR established a special mechanism, with the support of the government, that provided access to information and facilitated discussions with security personnel and the families of the victims. Some journalists expressed concern actions by organized-crime groups on the northern border could lead to self-censorship.
Actions to Expand Freedom of Expression, Including for the Media: President Moreno publicly highlighted the important role the press plays in fighting corruption. He promoted a national dialogue between civil society representatives and government agencies to address differences in opinion regarding the 2013 communications law. On July 12, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a press release underscoring the government’s efforts “in working to improve relations with the press, encouraging investigative journalists, and vowing to reform the repressive communication law.”
President Moreno invited IACHR Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Edison Lanza to visit the country to verify the country’s compliance with its international obligations on promoting and protecting the right to freedom of expression. This was the first visit by the IACHR special rapporteur in more than a decade. The IACHR’s 2014 request to visit the country had been denied by the previous government. Following an August 23 meeting between President Moreno and Lanza, the government announced the creation of a Committee for the Protection of Journalists, charged with drafting security protocols, providing training, and ensuring that threats against journalists are investigated. Lanza noted the IACHR put in place a special mechanism with the support of the government to investigate the kidnapping and killing of the El Comercio team.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet, and there were no credible reports the government censored online content or 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. 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 media from using information obtained from social media unless they can verify the author of the information.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 57 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
Early in the year, the Pichincha Provincial Prosecutor’s Office recommended the closure of the Ministry of Interior’s investigation into Luis Vivanco, former editor in chief of La Hora, for his tweets that “attempt[ed] to disparage the actions carried out by the government in its permanent fight against corruption.” As of October 31, authorities had not informed Vivanco if they would close the case.
Following his October visit, UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression David Kaye noted the Moreno administration appeared to have turned away from the previous administration’s efforts to restrict and punish online activity.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events. In August the National Assembly passed a set of reforms effectively repealing a 2016 law that had eliminated public funding for research at universities operating under international agreements.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. Public rallies require prior government permits, which authorities usually granted.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The law provides for freedom of association. In October 2017 President Moreno issued Decree 193 to replace executive Decrees 16 and 739 that regulated freedom of association. NGOs claimed former president Correa used the latter two decrees–which required all social organizations, including NGOs, to reregister in a new online registration system within one year of the decree or face dissolution–to stymie opposition and limit foreign influence. Following implementation of the new decree, the government allowed the reincorporation of two organizations Correa had dissolved.
Decree 193 simplifies the application process to obtain and maintain legal status for NGOs and social groups by relaxing and eliminating some bureaucratic hurdles. The decree closes loopholes exploited by the former government to infiltrate and fracture NGOs, including the elimination of a clause forcing groups to provide membership to any person, even against the will of the other members. International NGOs faced fewer restrictions on working in the country under the new decree. It ends the policy requiring government entities to collect information through the country’s diplomatic missions abroad on the “legality, solvency, and seriousness” of foreign NGOs before they are allowed to work in the country. Civil society representatives said the new decree was a step in the right direction but lamented that it leaves in place some Correa-era policies, including the right of the government to dissolve organizations for poorly defined reasons.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The 2017 Human Mobility Law codifies protections guaranteed to migrants in the constitution, advances the protection of refugees and asylum seekers, and establishes provisions such as equal treatment before the law for migrants, nonrefoulement, and noncriminalization of irregular migration. As of September the government was developing regulations to implement the law. During the year large numbers of migrants and asylum seekers, and the country’s economic slowdown, strained the government’s immigration and social services, which worked closely with local, international, and civil society organizations to cover assistance gaps. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Migrants and refugees, especially women and children, occasionally experienced sexual and gender-based violence. UNHCR and local NGOs reported that refugee women and children were susceptible to violence and trafficking in persons for the purposes of sex trafficking and forced labor. They also reported the forced recruitment of adolescents into criminal activity, such as drug trafficking and robbery, on the northern border, particularly by organized-crime gangs that also operated in Colombia. Government authorities provided basic protection for vulnerable populations; however, the influx of migrants and refugees during the year placed a significant strain on the government’s capacity to address and prevent abuses against migrants and refugees.
The government cooperated with UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to migrants, internally displaced persons, refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other vulnerable persons of concern.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
From January to April, a series of attacks by a narcoguerrilla group against military and police personnel and installations in Esmeraldas Province, including the bombing of a police station, led persons to leave the area for security concerns. The Catholic Church provided shelter to the internally displaced families, with local government assistance. On April 17, Economic and Social Inclusion Minister Berenice Cordero reported that 158 families displaced by the attacks received government assistance.
On July 8, government officials reported the closure of the last shelter for families affected by the 2016 earthquake in the province of Manabi. The government noted all families had a place to live due to reconstruction efforts and the housing assistance provided by the Ministry of Urban Development.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.
The country’s population of recognized refugees and asylum seekers, mostly Colombians, numbered more than 64,300. During the first 10 months of the year, the Ministry of Interior registered more than 700,000 Venezuelans entering the country, more than double the number (288,000) who entered in all of 2017. As of September authorities estimated that 250,000 Venezuelans were residing in Ecuador and had issued more than 100,000 Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) temporary residency visas to Venezuelans, with 50,000 more being processed.
UNHCR reported an increase in Colombians seeking asylum during the year. Venezuelans were the second-highest nationality of asylum seekers, with approximately 9,000 Venezuelan asylum cases recorded during the first nine months of the year, according to UNHCR. An international organization reported many Venezuelans did not apply for asylum because they were unfamiliar with the process or did not know how long they would stay.
Access to Basic Services: Of refugees and asylum seekers, 40 percent resided in isolated regions with limited basic services, primarily along the northern border, or in poor urban areas of major cities such as Quito and Guayaquil. According to UNHCR and NGOs, refugees encountered discrimination in employment and housing. A 2016 agreement between UNHCR and the Directorate General of Civil Registry enables recognized refugees to receive national identification cards that facilitate access to education, employment, banking, and other public services. A nonprofit organization reported the Civil Registry began issuing national identification cards for refugees in November 2017 but offered this service in only three cities, which resulted in refugees incurring additional expenses for travel. The Civil Registry also requires authorization from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility, and often refugees were required to return to the ministry if the information on their records contained errors.
Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees for resettlement and offered naturalization to refugees, although few refugees were able to naturalize as citizens or gain permanent resident status due to an expensive and lengthy legal process. Discrimination, difficulty in obtaining adequate documentation, and limited access to formal employment and housing affected refugees’ ability to assimilate into the local population.
Temporary Protection: While there is no legal provision for temporary protection, the government and NGOs provided humanitarian aid and additional services, such as legal, health, education, and psychological assistance, to individuals recorded as having crossed the border during the year.
As a member of UNASUR and an associate member of the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR), Ecuador issues temporary visas to citizens of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and the government waived the visa application fee for Colombian and Paraguayan citizens. Foreigners in an irregular migratory status in the country were eligible to apply for the visa. While the UNASUR and MERCOSUR visas do not provide a safeguard against forced repatriation, UNHCR noted that many persons opted for these visas, since the procedure was faster than the refugee process and carried less social stigma. Visa recipients are able to work and study for two years. The visas are renewable based upon the same guidelines as the initial application, with only the additional requirement that the applicant provide an Ecuadorian Criminal Records Certificate.