Freedom in the World 2017 - Ecuador

Freedom Status: 
Partly Free

Freedom in the World Scores

Aggregate Score57/10057/100
(0=Least Free, 100=Most Free)
Freedom Rating: 3.5/7
(1=Most Free, 7=Least Free)

Quick Facts

Press Freedom Status: 
Not Free
Net Freedom Status: 
Partly Free

Ratings Change:

Ecuador’s civil liberties rating declined from 3 to 4 due to the government’s decision to order the closure of a major teachers’ union as well as regulatory actions and legislation that threatened the sustainability of two graduate universities.


Ecuador transitioned to democracy from a military regime in 1979, and since then has experienced the ouster of three presidents under popular or military pressure. Elections take place regularly amid a highly fragmented party system. A leftist government has ruled the country for the past decade, and has introduced a new constitution that guarantees the rights of women and minorities, among other improvements. However, the government has a poor record regarding respect for civil liberties, particularly freedom of expression. 

Key Developments in 2016: 
  • Journalistic coverage of the leaked documents dubbed the Panama Papers, which appeared in the international press beginning in April, triggered authorities to launch corruption investigations into Ecuadorian entities mentioned in the leak.
  • In July, close to 150 Cuban nationals were detained and deported while trying to obtain authorization to seek asylum in the United States or Ecuador; human rights watchdogs decried due process violations during the deportation proceedings.
  • In August, the government ordered the dissolution of the largest teachers’ union in the country, claiming that the group had failed to fully disclose information about its leadership.
  • In December, the National Assembly passed legislation eliminating public funding for research at universities that operate under international agreements; the legislation has the potential to undermine the sustainability of two graduate universities, Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar and FLACSO Ecuador.
Executive Summary: 

The administration of Rafael Correa, who has held presidential office since 2007, maintained pressures on the media environment and civil society in 2016. In August, the Ministry of Education declared the dissolution of the National Union of Teachers (UNE), the largest trade association for teachers in the country. The ministry claimed that UNE had failed to submit all information about its leadership as part of its state registration, and was in violation of regulations for the functioning of social organizations. Domestic and international rights groups, among them the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), protested the decision, finding it a politically motivated violation of freedom of association. Academic freedom also faced threats in legislative amendments passed in December that cut research funding for universities operating under international agreements. The legislation, which affects two graduate universities in particular, followed vocal criticism of public funding for such institutions by Correa.

The government has increasingly cracked down on social media and other internet activity in recent years, leading some online outlets to disable public comment sections out of fear of reprisal. The local press watchdog Fundamedios reported that in 2016, officials continued monitoring speech on the social-media platform Twitter and filing complaints against accounts that are critical of the Correa administration.

In July, authorities detained and deported around 150 Cuban nationals who had established an encampment in a Quito park while attempting to gain asylum in the United States or Ecuador. Human rights watchdogs decried the move, claiming that the judicial proceedings involved in the deportations violated due process rights. Ecuador is the largest recipient of refugees in Latin America, and in 2016, the government continued to struggle to uphold refugees’ rights.

Tensions between the presidency and the military surfaced in February, when Correa dismissed the military high command amid allegations that the Social Security Institute of the Armed Forces had overcharged the Ministry of the Environment in a land deal. Correa announced plans to withhold the overpaid sum, sparking popular protests over concerns about the impact on military pensions. The disagreement also led to the resignation of the minister of defense and prompted a cabinet reshuffle in March. Separately, international journalistic coverage of the Panama Papers, which made headlines beginning in April, triggered authorities to launch corruption investigations into Ecuadorian entities mentioned in the leaked documents. 

Political Rights

Political Rights 24 / 40

A. Electoral Process 7 / 12

A1. Is the head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
A2. Are the national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair?

The 2008 constitution provides for a directly elected president. The unicameral, 137-seat National Assembly is elected for four-year terms, with 116 members elected in 24 provinces (each province elects at least two representatives and then one additional representative for every 200,000 inhabitants), 15 elected through nationwide proportional representation, and 6 elected in multimember constituencies representing Ecuadorians living abroad. The president has the authority to dissolve the legislature once in his term, which triggers new elections for both the assembly and the presidency. The assembly can likewise dismiss the president, though under more stringent rules. The president can veto individual line items in legislation. The election law requires that women account for 50 percent of party lists in national legislative elections.

In the 2013 presidential election, Correa won a second term with more than 57 percent of the vote in the first round, followed by Guillermo Lasso Mendoza of the Creating Opportunities Movement (CREO) with 22 percent. In concurrent legislative elections, Correa’s Alianza PAIS won an overwhelming 100 of the 137 seats. CREO took only 11 seats; the Social Christian Party won 6; Patriotic Society, Avanza, and the Pachakutik Plurinational Unity Movement won 5 each; and five smaller factions took 1 seat each. A 2008 constitutional mandate called for a significant female presence in public office; women won 53 of 137 assembly seats in the 2013 elections.

International observers reported that the elections were generally free and fair. According to the Organization of American States (OAS), the environment for political competition among candidates was more equal than in previous elections due to new regulations imposed during the campaign period. The OAS noted, however, that competition between candidates in the precampaign period remained unregulated, giving an advantage to the incumbent. Prior to the elections, the Correa administration promoted changes to the parliament’s seat-allocation formula that favored larger parties, which critics warned would benefit PAIS.

In 2014, a majority in the National Assembly approved 15 constitutional amendments. Among other things, the changes lowered the minimum age of presidential candidates to 30 years, limited the subjects on which citizens and local governments could request a referendum, and eliminated term limits for elected officials. The removal of term limits included a provision restricting current officials who had already served two terms, including Correa, from running again in 2017, though these individuals would be eligible again beginning in 2021. The opposition and several civil society groups condemned the amendments.

In October 2016, the National Electoral Council opened the candidate registration process for the February 2017 general elections.

B. Political Pluralism and Participation 11 / 16

B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system open to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
B2. Is there a significant opposition vote and a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, totalitarian parties, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group?
B4. Do cultural, ethnic, religious, or other minority groups have full political rights and electoral opportunities?

For decades, Ecuador’s political parties have been largely personality based, clientelist, and fragile. Correa’s PAIS remains by far the largest party in the legislature. Other parties include CREO, the Social Christian Party, and the Patriotic Society Party.

The 2008 constitution mandated that political organizations register in order to be eligible for participation in the 2013 general elections, although the process drew controversy. In preparation for the 2014 local elections, the registry of local organizations expanded. At the end of 2016, there were more than 150 registered political organizations, most of them at the local level.

Ecuador’s constitution promotes nondiscrimination and provides for the adoption of affirmative action measures to guarantee equality and representation of minorities. In practice, however, indigenous groups often lack a voice in key decisions pertaining to their land and resources. The Pachakutik movement is loosely affiliated with the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities, the leading national organization representing indigenous groups.

C. Functioning of Government 6 / 12

C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
C2. Is the government free from pervasive corruption?
C3. Is the government accountable to the electorate between elections, and does it operate with openness and transparency?

Ecuador has long been racked by corruption, and the weak judiciary and lack of investigative capacity in government oversight agencies contribute to an environment of impunity. Corruption investigations fall under the jurisdiction of the government’s Office of Transparency and Social Control, created under the 2008 constitution. In 2013, the agency launched a national plan aimed at eradicating corruption by 2017. In April 2016, the National Assembly Justice Commission began investigating the involvement of Ecuadorian entities in potential financial wrongdoing suggested by the Panama Papers, a cache of documents leaked from a major offshore law firm. The initiative produced an August report on tax havens that included a recommendation for further investigations of institutions, officials, and private individuals. In May, former head of the state-owned oil company Petroecuador, Álex Bravo, was detained on charges of illicit enrichment. In June, Ecuadorian authorities dismantled a criminal network involved in money laundering and the illegal export of gold. Also in June, the National Assembly passed a law designed to help the detection, prevention, and prosecution of money laundering.

Ecuador was ranked 90 out of 176 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Civil Liberties

Civil Liberties 33 / 60 (−2)

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief 11 / 16 (−1)

D1. Are there free and independent media and other forms of cultural expression?
D2. Are religious institutions and communities free to practice their faith and express themselves in public and private?
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free of extensive political indoctrination?
D4. Is there open and free private discussion?

Ecuador remained a hostile environment for freedom of expression in 2016. The press watchdog Fundamedios recorded 535 cases of aggression against media workers during the year, of which 32 were instances of physical aggression. Correa continued to use national broadcasts to castigate opposition leaders and other critics. The government also made use of its unlimited access to public service airtime to interrupt news programming on privately owned stations for the purpose of discrediting journalists.

Criminal prosecution of defamation remains a problem. In September 2016, a judge sentenced Quito’s CREO vice-mayor, Eduardo del Pozo, to 15 days in prison for defaming Correa. Del Pozo planned to appeal the sentence.

Ecuador’s controversial Organic Law on Communications, approved by the National Assembly in 2013, has faced strong criticism from international press freedom groups and human rights commissions for overly broad restrictions on the media. Among other provisions, the legislation created powerful regulatory bodies with little independence from the executive, placed excessive controls on journalistic content, and imposed onerous obligations on journalists and media outlets, such as barring reporters from working unless they hold degrees from accredited institutions. The law also employs vague language that could be used to censor critical reporting, prohibiting “media lynching” and “character assassination.” The former extends to investigative reporting, while the latter covers the dissemination of any information that could undermine the prestige of an individual or institution. The Constitutional Court upheld the law in 2014, rejecting a challenge by opposition politicians and civil society groups. According to Fundamedios, from October 2013 to June 2016, the law resulted in 398 sanctions, 98 percent of which were levied against privately owned media. In August 2016, the media regular sanctioned award-winning journalist Janet Hinostroza and the television network Teleamazonas, for which she hosts a program, for “media lynching” in their investigative reporting about a government purchase of medication. Before the sanction was announced, Correa personally denounced Hinostroza and Teleamazonas in his weekly television address.

The 2013 criminal code contains potential restrictions on freedom of expression, including provisions penalizing the propagation of information that could erode equality, the unauthorized dissemination of personal information, the publication of false news that could affect the economy, and the defense of someone sentenced for a crime. The code retained existing libel and terrorism clauses. A constitutional reform package approved in 2015 included a provision to make communications a “public service,” which gives the government broad regulatory powers over the media.

Freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected in practice.

In 2016, some government maneuvers around higher education funding threatened to compromise academic freedom. In December, the National Assembly approved changes to the Law on Higher Education that eliminate public funding for research at universities that operate in Ecuador under international agreements. Earlier in the year, Correa criticized the use of public funds by such institutions. Critics noted that the changes would severely undermine the viability of two graduate institutions, Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar and FLACSO Ecuador.

Critical content published online has been subject to increasing pressure from the government in recent years. Crackdowns on social media have led some online outlets to disable sections for public commentary for fear of reprisal, limiting the freedom of private discussion online. The government has employed private firm Ares Rights to force the removal of YouTube videos and Twitter posts that are critical of the government, mostly relying on copyright infringement as grounds. Fundamedios reported that more than 800 complaints against at least 292 Ecuadorian Twitter accounts were filed between mid-April and mid-July 2016. The complaints targeted accounts that had a significant following and that posted content criticizing the government.

E. Associational and Organizational Rights 6 / 12 (−1)

E1. Is there freedom of assembly, demonstration, and open public discussion?
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations?
E3. Are there free trade unions and peasant organizations or equivalents, and is there effective collective bargaining? Are there free professional and other private organizations?

Numerous protests occur throughout the country without incident. However, national security legislation that predates the Correa administration provides a broad definition of sabotage and terrorism, extending to acts against persons and property by unarmed individuals. The use of such charges against protesters has increased under Correa. According to Human Rights Watch, delays in the appeals process of sabotage and terrorism cases are likely the result of political pressure.

Weeks of national protests in 2015 over indigenous rights left more than 100 injured, including civilians and police personnel. Watchdogs condemned police officers’ use of excessive force and arbitrary detention in response to the events.

While the right to organize civic groups and unions is granted by law, domestic and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have come under increasing government scrutiny and regulation. A 2013 presidential decree, codified in 2015, introduced onerous requirements for forming an NGO, granted officials broad authority to dissolve organizations, and obliged NGOs to register all members. Critics contended that the decree violated international standards, and activists challenged its constitutionality in Ecuadorian courts.

In December 2016, the government initiated the dissolution process of Acción Ecológica, an environmental NGO, arguing that the organization had diverged from its goals after it supported a Shuar community that clashed with police amid a conflict with a Chinese mining company. Authorities accused the organization of acting beyond its authority, participating in violence, and interfering in politics.

Private-sector labor unions have the right to strike, though the labor code limits public-sector strikes. The 2015 constitutional amendments limit public sector collective bargaining. There are more labor unions in the public than in the private sector. The ILO has recommended that Ecuador review a constitutional provision mandating that only one association represent public sectors workers. It is estimated that only a small portion of the general workforce is unionized, partly because many people work in the informal sector.

In August 2016, the Ministry of Education dissolved the UNE on the grounds that the union had failed to properly register its leadership and was noncompliant with regulations on social organizations. UNE sustained that its attempts to register its leadership encountered obstacles within the government. The dissolution was widely viewed as a political move and prompted criticism from the public and international organizations, including the ILO.

F. Rule of Law 6 / 16

F1. Is there an independent judiciary?
F2. Does the rule of law prevail in civil and criminal matters? Are police under direct civilian control?
F3. Is there protection from political terror, unjustified imprisonment, exile, or torture, whether by groups that support or oppose the system? Is there freedom from war and insurgencies?
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?

Ecuador’s highest-ranking judicial bodies are the 21-member National Court of Justice and the nine-member Constitutional Court. Opposition members and foreign experts have expressed concern about the pronounced lack of transparency in the appointment process for the National Court of Justice, and the Constitutional Court has likewise faced criticism because members of its selection committee are closely aligned with the government. The system used by the Council of Popular Participation to vet candidates for the attorney general, appointed in 2011, was similarly criticized for its lack of transparency.

Judicial processes remain slow, with many inmates reaching the time limit for pretrial detention while their cases are still under investigation. Overcrowding plagues the prison system, and torture and ill-treatment of detainees and prisoners are widespread. The 2013 criminal code introduced more restrictive rules on pretrial detention, penalties for specific crimes such as hired killings, and tougher sentences for existing offenses. The government maintains strict visitation protocols for inmates’ families.

There have been some tensions in the president’s relationship with Ecuador’s military. In February 2016, amid a dispute over a 2010 land deal between the military and the Ministry of the Environment, Correa dismissed the high command of the armed forces. The dismissals led to the resignation of the minister of defense and prompted Correa to initiate a cabinet reshuffle in March.

Indigenous people continue to suffer discrimination at many levels of society. In the Amazon region, indigenous groups have attempted to win a share of oil revenues and a voice in decisions on natural resources and development. The government, however, has steadfastly refused the claims of indigenous inhabitants, maintaining that development of protected land is a matter of national interest. Those who continue to campaign against the government often face harassment or violence. In reports submitted for Ecuador’s 2017 United Nations Universal Periodic Review on Human Rights, several human rights organizations highlighted violations of the rights of prior consent and free association of indigenous peoples.

Ecuador is the largest recipient of refugees in Latin America. A 2015 report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) asserted that Ecuador needed to better uphold the right of asylum and to fight discrimination against refugees. In July 2016, authorities detained and deported around 150 Cuban nationals who were living in an encampment in Quito and protesting poor access to immigration and asylum mechanisms. Most of the individuals were attempting to obtain humanitarian visas from the Mexican government and continue to the United States; some had requested asylum in Ecuador. Human rights watchdogs condemned the move, arguing that the judges who presided over the deportation proceedings violated due process.

The government has shown some responsiveness in upholding the rights of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people. The constitution includes the right to decide one’s sexual orientation, and discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited by law. Nevertheless, LGBT individuals continue to face discriminatory treatment.

G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights 10 / 16

G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of travel or choice of residence, employment, or institution of higher education?
G2. Do individuals have the right to own property and establish private businesses? Is private business activity unduly influenced by government officials, the security forces, political parties/organizations, or organized crime?
G3. Are there personal social freedoms, including gender equality, choice of marriage partners, and size of family?
G4. Is there equality of opportunity and the absence of economic exploitation?

Freedom of movement outside and inside the country is largely unrestricted. Individuals can determine their place and type of employment. There has been some controversy over entrance to public institutions of higher education since the government introduced a nationwide examination and reorganized admission procedures.

Citizens have the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue influence by nonstate actors. While there may be delays due to red tape, Ecuador’s business environment is close to the regional average in the World Bank’s 2017 Doing Business report. The results of a 2011 referendum and a subsequent antimonopoly law prevent asset holders in private financial institutions or private companies in the communications sector from simultaneously holding stakes outside each of these sectors.

Employment discrimination is common. The government has taken steps to protect women’s rights through public campaigns and legal measures. The 2013 criminal code included femicide as a crime, with penalties reaching 26 years in prison. Sexual harassment is punishable with up to two years in prison. From the 2013 enforcement of the code to April 2016, the attorney general’s office investigated 84 cases of femicide, resulting in 24 guilty verdicts. The constitution does not provide for same-sex marriage, but civil unions are recognized.

Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian individuals, as well as migrants and refugees from Colombia, are most vulnerable to human trafficking in Ecuador.

Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year

Full Methodology