Attacks on the Press 2002: Ecuador

President Gustavo Noboa’s administration, which has been in power since January 2000, was generally tolerant of criticism in 2002 and respected the work of the press, except for some incidents in which journalists were temporarily denied full access to the Palace of Government.

Following the current regional wave of disillusionment with traditional political parties in Latin America, on October 20, Ecuador’s first round of general elections saw candidates from nontraditional parties–former army officer Lucio Gutiérrez and banana tycoon Álvaro Noboa (of no relation to the president)–advance to the runoff, where Gutiérrez emerged as the winner of the November 24 poll. According to Participación Ciudadana Ecuador (Citizens’ Participation Ecuador), a nongovernmental organization that monitored the electoral process, “while media coverage of all candidates has been acceptable, … in the first round there were candidates who … had a smaller presence in the news.”

Some journalists praised the print media for maintaining relative independence from political parties but pointed out that powerful banking groups that control broadcasting outlets (and whose executives have been investigated or tried on corruption charges) have close ties to politicians. Other journalists noted that media owners, not the government, discouraged reporters from investigating the banking crisis that caused the collapse of several private banks in 2000 and cost taxpayers and account holders hundreds of millions of dollars.

Ecuadoran journalists confront some of the same pressures as their colleagues in the rest of Latin America, namely low salaries that make them more vulnerable to bribes, the threat of criminal defamation lawsuits, and difficulties accessing information held by state institutions, particularly the judiciary.

In 2002, Jorge Vivanco Mendieta, deputy editor and columnist at the Guayaquil daily Expreso, continued to fight criminal and civil defamation charges filed in July 2001 by Fernando Rosero, a parliamentary deputy from the Ecuadoran Roldosista Party. The charges stem from several Expreso articles by Vivanco criticizing army generals for not defending themselves against Rosero’s allegations that they had purchased defective weapons from Argentina. In October, however, after numerous appeals by Rosero, the Supreme Court dismissed the criminal lawsuit. The appeals process in the civil lawsuit was continuing at year’s end.

On September 30, newspaper owners proposed an access to information bill to President Noboa, who pledged to submit it to Congress. While the Ecuadoran Constitution guarantees access to information under Article 81, the country has no comprehensive law that establishes deadlines and procedures for disclosure or that punishes officials who refuse to comply.

On September 18, Congress approved a bill to reform the Law of Radio and Television Broadcasting. Article 1 of the measure recognizes the right of community radio stations run by Indian, Afro-Ecuadoran, and peasant organizations to raise funds through donations, paid announcements, and advertising. On September 30, Noboa vetoed the bill and sent it back to Congress because he objected to articles that could be used to restrict press freedom. On October 30, the Congress overrode Noboa’s veto.

In February, the government imposed a state of emergency in the oil-producing provinces of Sucumbíos and Orellana after violent anti-government protests erupted there. The emergency decree called for the army to administer the region and restricted constitutional guarantees, including freedom of expression. As a result, Radio La Jungla, which the government accused of inciting the population to violence by telling people to engage in street protests and of issuing messages against the emergency decree, was temporarily shuttered. On March 4, the state of emergency was lifted and the station went back on the air.