Ecuador’s government has fined seven newspapers and television stations for not publishing a story it claims was of public interest.
The fines, backed by President Rafael Correa, may never be collected, however. Lenin Moreno, who succeeds Correa in May, says he disagrees with the judgment and parts of the law under which they were imposed. It is one of several issues on which Moreno and Correa disagree even though they belong the same political party.
Government media watchdog Supercom announced the judgement Thursday against newspapers La Hora, El Expreso, El Comercio, and El Universo, and television channels Televicentro, Teleamazonas and Ecuavisa. The fine is $3,750, or the equivalent of 10 journalists’ basic salaries.
The story, reported in March by a small left-wing Argentinian publication, claimed that losing presidential candidate Guillermo Lasso had off-shore business dealings and bank accounts. Lasso said some of the reporting was accurate but most was not.
In announcing the fines, Supercom said the media’s decision not to publish the claims made in the Argentinian article amounted what it called “prior censorship.”
Pedro Valverde, a lawyer for the El Universo newspaper, called the charges “outrageous” and an attempt to control the media in the government’s interests. “What the hell is ‘prior censorship’ anyway?” he asked, telling the BBC that the newspaper will “exhaust all administrative and judicial options to annul this absurd sanction.”
The other media outlets fined also say the plan to appeal.
International and Ecuadorian press organizations condemned the fines and applauded the comments by President-elect Moreno. “The ruling proves that this government has zero understanding of journalism and the concept of free speech,” said Cesar Ricaurte, director of Fundamedios, a Quito-based free-speech group.
Ricaurte added that the Supercom claim that the media should have published the charges against Lasso violate Ecuador’s constitution. “They admit that what Pagina 12 (the Argentine newspaper) said were merely charges, not facts, yet they want Ecuador’s media to republish them without verification.”
Supercom’s superintendent Carlos Ochoa called the fines both a punishment and a motivation for improving journalistic practices. “The media’s failure to publish this information affected the voting rights of Ecuadorians, since the possible crimes involved someone who aspired to be president.”
Supercom operates under Ecuador’s Law of Communication, enacted by the Correa government in 2013. Moreno has said he will amend the law once he is in office.