Attacks on the Press 2001: Ecuador

In general, press freedom is respected in Ecuador, but journalists complained that government officials continue to blame the media for the country’s problems, including rampant corruption.

Throughout much of the year, President Gustavo Noboa sparred with the press over its critical coverage of his administration’s failure to handle a rash of failing private banks–a crisis that cost Ecuadoran taxpayers and account holders hundreds of millions of dollars.

In January, Noboa issued a communiqué asking the media to observe “balance when providing information” and to maintain “full identification with the democratic system.” In July, Noboa accused the press of trying “to give us a bad international reputation that is difficult for me to overcome in [my] travels abroad,” according to the Guayaquil daily El Universo. At year’s end, the tussle continued, with Noboa and other government officials criticizing what they perceived as negative coverage of government affairs.

In August, a little-known group called Legión Blanca sent several lengthy e-mails to local human rights organizations and media outlets. In addition to issuing death threats against activists and claiming responsibility for harassing and intimidating them, the group threatened “alleged journalists who, hidden behind their computers, pens, microphones, or screens, promote communism, chaos, and destabilization of democracy.”

The group also claimed to have murdered journalist Luis Fernando Maldonado, a news producer and host for the Quito-based television channel Telesistema who was killed on August 8 in an apparent robbery attempt. Local journalists dismissed the group’s confession as unreliable and maintained that Maldonado was not killed for his journalistic work. One source suggested that the group was merely trying to engender fear among Ecuadoran journalists.

In some cases, politicians have used criminal defamation lawsuits to pressure journalists. In July, Ecuadoran Roldosista Party (PRE) parliamentary deputy Fernando Rosero filed a criminal defamation lawsuit against Jorge Vivanco Mendieta, deputy editor and columnist at the Guayaquil daily Expreso. The lawsuit stemmed from several articles by Vivanco, including a piece criticizing the army for not defending itself against allegations that Rosero had made accusing the army of purchasing defective weapons. Rosero also filed a civil lawsuit against Vivanco requesting damages for US$1 million. Both cases remained in the courts at press time.

Also in July, journalist Malena Cardona Batallas was fined and sentenced to a month in prison for defaming PRE parliamentary deputy Roberto Rodríguez in a May 2000 television interview in which Cardona questioned Rodríguez about the alleged misappropriation of a government vehicle. On December 14, Portoviejo’s Superior Court of Justice upheld the sentence, which the journalist plans to appeal.

Ecuador’s 1975 Law on the Professional Practice of Journalism requires all local journalists to have a university degree in journalism and to register with the Federación Nacional de Periodistas, a national press association. While the law is rarely applied, during 2001, journalists’ unions, which argue that the restrictions hold the profession to a higher standard, called for increased enforcement. In a 1985 decision, however, the Costa Rica­based 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 public documents on demand. But the government routinely ignores this obligation, which has not yet been codified. In August, a commission comprising members of several journalists’ organizations met with the president’s spokesman, Oscar Zuloaga, to call on the government to enforce Article 81. Authorities have not yet taken action.

July 20

Jorge Vivanco Mendieta, Expreso

Vivanco, 74, deputy editor and columnist at the Guayaquil daily Expreso, faced criminal and civil defamation charges filed by Fernando Rosero, a parliamentary deputy with the Ecuadoran Roldosista Party (PRE).

The lawsuits stemmed from several Expreso articles by Vivanco, including a July 15 piece criticizing Ecuadoran army generals for not defending themselves against Rosero’s allegations that they had purchased defective weapons from Argentina in early 1995.

In the article, Vivanco referred to a political “offensive” by “Panamanian exiles” led by Rosero. This was an allusion to Rosero’s relationship with former president and PRE leader Abdalá Bucaram, who was removed from his post in 1997 for corruption and has since lived in Panama with some of his closest supporters. Vivanco also wrote that Rosero was protected by his “parliamentary immunity-impunity.”

Vivanco told CPJ that the 19th Criminal Court of Guayas would hear the criminal case. A judge scheduled settlement talks for December 21, but the journalist told CPJ that he had no intention of settling the case.

Rosero’s civil suit requested US$1 million in damages. The 10th Civil Court of Guayas heard arguments in late December. On January 7, 2002, a judge dismissed the civil suit, ruling that Rosero had not proved any actual damage.

Rosero immediately appealed the ruling, taking the opportunity to issue veiled threats against Vivanco and to criticize the judge for alleged partiality. “In defense of honor, tomorrow those affected will have to take justice into their own hands,” Rosero wrote in his request for an appeal, a copy of which was obtained by CPJ.