Attacks on the Press 2000: Ecuador

AMID SOCIAL AND POLITICAL TURBULENCE following a change of government in January and the dollarization of the economy, authorities intercepted a series of letter bombs sent to journalists.

On January 21, President Jamil Mahuad was overthrown in an uprising led by junior military officers and Amerindian protesters who installed a “national salvation government.” The following morning, one of the revolt leaders, former defense minister Carlos Mendoza, dissolved the new government and put an end to the coup. Mendoza ceded power to Vice President Gustavo Noboa, who was quickly sworn in as the new president.

On February 16, Rafael Cuesta Caputti, news director at TC Televisión, was wounded when he opened a letter bomb in his office. The bomb came with a videotape that had been mailed from the city of Cuenca, in the southern province of Azuay. Caputti suffered superficial cuts on his face and hands.

Between February 9 and 14, at least 10 other letter bombs were mailed to journalists and politicians. All of them were intercepted and deactivated by police and caused no injuries. The local press reported that before the attacks, some journalists received threatening letters signed by a previously unknown group called the Ecuador National Liberation Army.

In July, alleged intelligence service agents interrogated Muriel Merino, an Argentine intern at the Quito daily HOY who was reporting on Amerindian protest movements. The agents advised her to write about alleged links between the Amerindian population and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel movement if she wanted to stay in Ecuador. Merino refused, and stayed in the country until she finished her internship.

Ecuador’s 1975 Law on the Professional Practice of Journalism requires all local journalists to hold a university degree in journalism and to register with the Federación Nacional de Periodistas, a national press association. However, enforcement is lax. In a 1985 decision, the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights found that such mandatory licensing laws violate the American Convention on Human Rights.

Article 81 of the 1998 Constitution requires the state to guarantee freedom of information by releasing documents to the public on demand. The government routinely ignores this obligation, which has not yet been codified as an enforceable statute, according to Diego Cornejo Menacho, assistant director for information at HOY.