Lucio Gutiérrez, who was elected president in 2002 on an anticorruption platform, repeatedly lashed out at the press in 2004 over allegations of nepotism and campaign finance irregularities. The president and government officials regularly accused the media of “spreading half-truths.” Given the government’s hostility, journalists fear that a new access to information law may not have its promised effect.
Gutiérrez signed the new law on May 16, but regulations implementing the law had yet to be approved at year’s end. While journalists commended the legislation, they said the regulations drafted by the government were too restrictive, countering the law’s spirit. For example, matters related to national security will remain classified, and journalists said the regulations give too much discretion to government officials to bar access to other types of information.
In a September speech, Gutiérrez accused political opponents of manipulating media outlets to misinform citizens and weaken the democratic system. Gutiérrez also complained of an ongoing campaign to discredit his administration, and he called on the local press to disseminate positive news.
Later that month, government Press Secretary Iván Oña Vélez proposed that the government be allowed to request that judges question journalists about news reports that the government deems false. Oña quickly abandoned the idea after a public outcry.
Nonetheless, journalists faced government scrutiny in 2004. On September 29, officials disclosed that they had asked prosecutors to investigate whether a radio interview conducted by Radio Visión Director Diego Oquendo had endangered national security, a crime under the Penal Code. In a September 8 interview with former government minister Patricio Acosta, Oquendo alleged that the Colombian rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had contributed money to Gutiérrez’s 2002 election campaign. In late October, Gutiérrez announced he would drop the request for an investigation of Oquendo, according to the Quito daily El Comercio (The Commerce).
Criminal penalties also remain a real threat to Ecuadoran journalists. In the fall, the Supreme Court of Justice upheld the verdict against Rodrigo Fierro Benítez, an El Comercio columnist who was convicted of criminal defamation in 2003. In June of that year, former President León Febres-Cordero filed a criminal lawsuit against Fierro after he wrote a piece accusing Febres-Cordero and other politicians of working together to favor the interests of local oligarchs.
Claiming that he and his family’s reputation had been damaged, Febres-Cordero—now a parliamentary deputy for the Social Christian Party—demanded a two-year prison sentence for Fierro, the maximum the Penal Code allows, and damages of US$1 million. On September 19, 2003, a judge sentenced Fierro to six months in prison and ordered him to pay US$1,000 in legal fees to Febres-Cordero’s lawyer.
On December 12, the Quito Superior Court of Justice upheld the ruling but reduced Fierro’s sentence to 30 days in prison and lowered the legal fees to US$100. The court also ruled that the damages sought by Febres-Cordero should be assessed in a future civil trial.
On December 15, Fierro asked the Quito Superior Court of Justice to suspend the execution of his sentence, allowed under Article 82 of the Penal Code provided that the person convicted does not have a criminal record and that the sentence is no longer than six months. On January 9, 2004, the Quito Superior Court of Justice dismissed Fierro’s request.
On January 12, 2004, Fierro filed an appeal for annulment (recurso de casación) before the Supreme Court of Justice. On October 29, a three-judge Supreme Court panel upheld Fierro’s one-month prison sentence but suspended it, citing Article 82 of the Penal Code and the fact that Fierro was more than 70 years old.
In early 2004, Radio Quito employees received several phone threats while its news director, Miguel Rivadeneira, was conducting an interview with a retired army officer. The callers insulted the station’s staff and threatened to “blow Rivadeneira up.” Rivadeneira attributed the threats to his criticism of the government and the army. By year’s end, police had made no progress in investigating the threats, Rivadeneira said.
According to journalists, broadcast media linked to large financial conglomerates rarely investigate reports of alleged corruption by their owners. In September, after the Banco del Pichincha–owned TV channel Teleamazonas broadcast a series of critical reports on Grupo Isaías, which owns competitor TC Televisión, TC Televisión aired reports accusing Banco del Pichincha’s owners of tax evasion.