Status: Partly Free Legal Environment: 16 Political Environment: 20 Economic Environment: 11 Total Score: 47
Press freedom declined in 2009 as critical news media came under greater political and legal pressure from the government.
At year’s end, international human rights organizations asked Ecuador’s National Assembly to amend the draft of its new Organic Law of Communication, Freedom of Expression, and Access to Public Information. Debated in the legislature since mid-September, the proposed bill had gradually polarized the nation and fueled significant concerns in media circles. While parts of the law were praised for combating the concentration of media ownership, promoting equal access for the disabled, and offering access to public information in governmental and private offices, other sections were strongly criticized as a direct threat to freedom of expression. Article 11 states that there will be no prior restraint except in circumstances established in the constitution, international treaties, and “the law,” a vague term that could open the door to censorship. Similarly, Article 30 mandates that “the programming of media outlets will disseminate primarily contents of an informative, educational, and cultural nature,” implying that entertainment shows could be curbed if they did not comply with the new policy goals.
Another section of the proposed law would create a registration system for all media operations and establish a Communication and Information Council to oversee it, possibly with content-review and enforcement powers. Three members of the seven-member council, including its chair, are expected to be government officials.
The government’s use of responsabilidad ulterior—the power to punish any media outlet after publication for abusive, untruthful, and “irresponsible” content—has incited fears among critics that the proposed law could become a ley mordaza (gag law). By contrast, members of the governing Alianza Pais party openly defended the rule as a remedy for the commercial mass media’s ongoing “licentiousness.”
Journalists continue to be charged with defamation and sentenced to prison. In June 2009, the director and editor of the Machala weekly La Verdad, Milton Nelson Chacaguasay Flores, was sentenced to four months in prison for slander related to a 2007 article linking the finance minister to a Ponzi scheme. Chacaguasay had been released from jail in May after serving an earlier sentence for slander.
Public officials, including the president, occasionally threaten legal action against journalists. The private television station Teleamazonas was disciplined by the National Council of Radio and Television (CONATEL) twice in June for allegedly violating broadcast laws. The station has also been officially threatened with a license suspension if offensive reports continue. In December, the government accused Teleamazonas of spreading misinformation and ordered it to cease broadcasting for three days for negatively reporting on the effects of natural gas exploration.
CONATEL has also been considering sanctions for television news programs, including those on Teleamazonas, Ecuavisa, TC Television, and Gama TV. Up to 130 license holders may be under scrutiny by CONATEL and other government agencies. In August 2009, CONATEL was placed under the jurisdiction of the new Ministry of Telecommunications and Information.
In an unusual development, CONATEL ordered all television stations to comply with research methods (surveys) that can be verified and to avoid information that negatively impacts the honor, dignity, and reputation of individuals.
Harsh official rhetoric against the private press is the norm. During a speech on August 10, President Rafael Correa reportedly said that the press is “the biggest adversary with a clear political role, though without any democratic legitimacy.” The president commonly refers to the press as “ignorant,” “mediocre,” “primitive,” “corrupt,” “bloodthirsty,” and “deceitful.”
Journalists in both public and private media regularly practice self-censorship. More than half of television journalists and at least a third of those working in the print media have reportedly either refrained from disseminating certain types of information or violated a journalistic principle because of fear of losing their jobs. In September 2009, two programs on the state-run Cablenoticias channel were allegedly cancelled once the station’s manager said he “didn’t like the content.”
No journalists were killed in 2009. However, arbitrary detentions and physical attacks against both local and foreign journalists persisted, even against correspondents from countries that enjoy warm relations with Ecuador, such as Venezuela. The local press freedom group Fundamedios claimed that Correa’s verbal assaults help create a climate that encourages physical attacks on the press. During 2009, unidentified individuals threw homemade bombs outside the offices of Teleamazonas and fired shots at the offices of the weekly publication Mi Pueblo. The television journalist Eduardo Vite Benitez Mata was shot and wounded by an unknown attacker in the city of Esmeraldas.
Community radio stations are also occasionally harassed. A reporter for the indigenous Inti Pacha radio outlet was arrested in January 2009 for covering a local protest against a new mining law, though he was released the next day.
Much of Ecuador’s media sector is privately owned, including hundreds of radio stations. However, the government has been increasing its share of media ownership. The administration owns four terrestrial-broadcast television stations, a cable network, and several radio stations.
The government has intensified its economic pressure on commercial media by conducting tax audits in provincial zones, limiting or denying state advertising in metropolitan areas, and acquiring smaller outlets through state-owned enterprises.
The internet is accessed by about 15 percent of the population, with most users living in urban areas, and there are no reported restrictions on access.
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