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).
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 a nonprofit organization, the government did not directly act against online criticism, although social media trolls arose following the publication of some controversial cases involving government officials.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
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.
In response to physical violence, vandalism, and looting during nationwide protests against the government’s proposed economic reforms, President Moreno issued Decree 884 on October 3 that established a nationwide “state of exception” for 60 days, which suspended mass gatherings in public spaces and mobilized the armed forces and police to “protect property, life, and maintain order.” The Constitutional Court validated the state of exception October 7 but limited it to 30 days.
On October 12, President Moreno issued Decree 893 amending the state of exception and focusing the restrictions on movement to key state installations and government buildings, as well as vital infrastructure including airports and oil refineries. The state of exception ended on November 2. Following escalating violence and attacks against police and military personnel and government and press buildings, the President declared a curfew in the Quito metropolitan area on October 12, which was lifted the following day.
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.
Although the nationwide state of exception under Decrees 884 and 893 prohibited mass gatherings, various mass demonstrations occurred between October 3 and October 13. President Moreno and government ministers consistently distinguished between peaceful protesters and violent agitators and vandals. Several peaceful demonstrations took place during the state of exception, including a peaceful protest by approximately 17,000 demonstrators that police facilitated in Quito on October 9 and a march for peace and democracy in Guayaquil that drew an estimated 30,000 persons on the same day.
The government reported that no lethal force by police or armed forces was used to respond to the protesters. According to Ministry of Government figures, there were 1,330 detentions, 1,507 wounded (including 435 police personnel), 202 police detained against their will by protesters, and up to eight dead between October 3-13 in the context of the protests. The government claimed most of the deaths were the result of accidents, including traffic accidents, but pledged to investigate the circumstances of all deaths. The government reported none of the deaths were attributable to live ammunition. The government invited the IACHR to visit October 28-30 and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for a mission October 20-November 8 to observe the human rights situation in connection with the protests. Final reports on the findings of the respective visits were pending through November 20.
Freedom of Association
The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. In 2017 Decree 193 replaced executive Decrees 16 and 739 that regulated freedom of association. Civil society representatives noted the new decree eliminated provisions meant to stymie opposition and limit foreign influence and simplified the application process to obtain and maintain legal status for NGOs and social groups by relaxing and eliminating some bureaucratic hurdles. They continued to lament, however, that the new decree leaves in place some policies of the previous government that could enable the government to dissolve independent organizations for poorly defined reasons. According to media citing Human Rights Secretariat figures, the number of legally recognized organizations increased 79 percent from 35,569 in October 2017 to 63,753 in November.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
e. Internally Displaced Persons
f. Protection of Refugees
The 2017 Human Mobility Law codifies protections granted 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.
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.
As of September 2, nearly 500,000 Venezuelans had entered Ecuador, with approximately 75 percent transiting to other countries. On August 26, the government implemented a new humanitarian visa requirement for Venezuelans to enter Ecuador. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported the number of Venezuelan migrants entering through formal border crossing points dropped considerably after August 26. International humanitarian organizations estimated that a significant number of Venezuelan citizens began to enter through informal border-crossing points. International organizations expressed concern the increased number of informal crossings placed more migrants in vulnerable conditions. International organizations also voiced concern that the new policy initially did not allow for exceptions to the visa requirement for some vulnerable populations.
The government estimated the number of Venezuelans residing in Ecuador likely exceeded 380,000 as of September 10. As of September the government had issued visas to approximately 120,000 Venezuelans.
The government began a nationwide registration and regularization process on September 26, which will end March 31, 2020. As of October 27, the Migration Secretariat of the Ministry of Government had registered more than 125,000 Venezuelans–the first step required to regularize status. On October 26, the Foreign Ministry began issuing two-year humanitarian visas to those registered as the next step in the regularization process.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Migrants and refugees, especially women and children, sometimes 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.
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.
On June 18, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility Jose Valencia stated the government had granted refugee status to approximately 68,000 persons since 1981, with 98 percent being Colombian citizens.
UNHCR reported an increase in Colombian and Venezuelan asylum seekers during the year. UNHCR reported Venezuelans and Colombians comprised the greatest number of asylum seekers, with 6,729 and 2,800 asylum cases recorded through June, respectively. When the new visa requirement for Venezuelans went into effect on August 26, UNHCR worked closely with Ecuadorian authorities to enable all asylum seekers to approach Ecuadorian immigration facilities at the Rumichaca International Bridge on the border with Colombia to request asylum officially. More generally, 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 in the country.
Access to Basic Services: The country’s Human Mobility Law provides for access to education, health care, and other services to all migrants irrespective of their legal status. Nonetheless, according to UNHCR and NGOs, refugees encountered discrimination in employment and housing. Recognized refugees received national identification cards that facilitated access to education, employment, banking, and other public services. A 2016 agreement between UNHCR and the Civil Registry allows UNHCR to provide financial aid to refugees who cannot afford to pay the identification card fee and travel expenses to the three cities where the cards are issued. UNHCR reported that 9,751 refugees had received identification cards as of August. The Civil Registry also requires a refugee enrollment order from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility, and sometimes 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. On July 25, President Moreno issued a decree to grant migratory amnesty and begin a regularization process for law-abiding Venezuelans residing in an irregular status in the country.
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 an associate member of the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) and despite the government’s March 13 decision to leave the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the National Assembly’s September 17 vote affirming that decision, the government continued to issue 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 with 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 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, which can be obtained online. According to UNHCR, the new visa requirements allow Venezuelans to apply for a humanitarian temporary residence visa instead of applying for a UNASUR visa.
g. Stateless Persons