By Dan Collyns and Jonathan Watts
After the inauguration this month of Ecuador’s first new president in a decade, the country’s beleaguered journalists will be looking to see if Lenin Moreno is any more tolerant of the press than his notoriously confrontational predecessor.
Moreno has hinted that he will reform the communication law, which was introduced in 2013 by former president Rafael Correa as a means of exerting control over a largely critical private media.
Hundreds of lawsuits have been launched as a result of the legislation, cowing editors, undermining the financial base of newspapers and even forcing cartoonists to “rectify” their images. Police have raided newsrooms, publications have been shut down and at least one journalist has been forced into exile.
Local journalists have frequently complained that censorship inside Ecuador under Correa belied the government’s claim to be a champion of free speech when it accepted the asylum request of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Moreno has promised a new approach. Although he is from the same party and was vice-president under Correa, the new leader has spoken of their “differences” on the matter of freedom of expression. He has also indicated a willingness to review the communication law, which was criticised last November by the special rapporteurs for press freedom at the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Under the law, the state’s media watchdog, known as SuperCom, has enormous powers to penalise media outlets not just for what they publish but also for what they do not.
In April, four newspapers and three television channels were initially issued fines for not publishing a story that SuperCom deemed of public interest. The story about Guillermo Lasso – at the time the opposition candidate for the presidency – was first published by Argentina’s Pagina Doce newspaper, then re-run by several Ecuadorean outlets just before the runoff vote on 2 April.
Change cannot come quickly enough for César Ricaurte, the executive director of press watchdog Fundamedia, who has accused the government of a low-intensity war on media freedom.
Since 2013, he said there have been more than 900 lawsuits against media organisations, more than half of them from the government. The majority result in hefty fines.
“The communication law has allowed the government to strongly influence the media. We have noted an increase of censorship. Editorial decisions are no longer being made by journalists, but by teams of lawyers,” he said. “The worst effect is that the traditional media has stopped investigating corruption because they can be punished.”
Several pioneering journalists have been driven from jobs in traditional media and set up overseas-based news websites to get around government efforts to silence them.
Martín Pallares, an investigative journalist, was fired from El Comercio newspaper after criticising the secretary of communication Fernando Alvorald on Twitter last year. He was also named and abused multiple times by Correa during the former president’s weekly TV shows, which frequently featured the head of state tearing up newspapers he disliked.
Pallares and several other journalists in a similar situation have formed 4 Pelagatos, or 4 Nobodies, a website about Ecuador that is hosted on servers in the Netherlands to ensure reporting freedom.
Pallares says he believes the new president will adopt a more tolerant approach, but that Moreno’s scope of movement will be limited.
“I think Lenin will be different. He’s much less aggressive than Correa. But the party apparatus will still be there,” he said.
More skeptical still is Christian Zurita, an investigative journalist who has set up a website based in Iceland after being hit with a crippling fine in Ecuador.
Zurita is the co-author of a book published in 2009 that alleged Fabricio Correa, the former president’s brother, was awarded multimillion-dollar contracts with the state.
President Correa denied knowledge of the contracts and then had them canceled – but then filed a $10m lawsuit against Zurita and his co-author for moral damages. Zurita was granted a protection order by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Zurita doubts the new president will scrap the communication law or end what he says is a coordinated campaign to hack journalists accounts and then divulge personal information to official media or online trolls.
“My impression is that Lenin Moreno will be the friendly face of extreme measures against freedom of expression,” Zurita said.
Freedom House, a human rights NGO subsidized by the US government, ranked Ecuador alongside Mexico and Venezuela in the Americas as ‘not free’ . Nonetheless it noted that with a new administration, government-owned media outlets “may enjoy greater editorial independence”.
The communication law is unlikely to be scrapped, but it may be relaxed, according to Hernan Reyes, political scientist at Quito’s Simon Bolivar Andean University, who defends the legislation as an antidote to excessively partisan and unbalanced reporting by private media outlets that were “little more than mouthpieces for the big economic powers”.
“It’s too popular to be thrown in the rubbish,” he said. Moreno would likely make some adjustments, however, such as reducing fines and easing the editorial controls, he said.
Any such changes will likely make little difference to Fernando Villavicencio, an investigative journalist who has spent the last two years in hiding and is currently awaiting a decision on his petition for political asylum in the Peruvian capital, Lima.
Convicted of defaming Correa, fined $47,000 and facing prison, Villavicencio spent a year living under the protection of an indigenous community in the Amazon, before slipping across the border into Peru last month.
The author of nine books faces jail in Ecuador under a pretrial detention order for allegedly disseminating Correa’s private emails along with those of another official. His wife told the Guardian that she and the couple’s children had received death threats.
A Peruvian media watchdog the Press and Society Institute, IPYS has taken on his case. “The charges against Villavicencio are unfounded and are being used [as] a form of persecution to shut him up,” said the organization’s lawyer Roberto Pereira.
Supporters contrast his treatment with that of Assange. But this comparison is dismissed by Reyes, who says Villavicencio is a “political activist” who should be in jail for using “highly sensitive, privileged information” in a “reckless and slanderous way”.
His case could not compared, even remotely, with the predicament of Julian Assange, he said.
How Moreno deals with such cases and calls for a more relaxed media policy will be closely watched, and will help determine whether the popular new president can set a new direction for Ecuador.
Credit: The Guardian, www.theguardian.com