President Rafael Correa regularly bashed the news media after taking office in January, reflecting increasing tensions between his young socialist government and the powerful business groups that control the country’s media. Correa immediately called for a new constitution that would expand the power of the executive branch, loosen term limits, and allow for greater government control over the media. In September, Correa’s Movimiento Alianza País party took an important step toward those goals by winning an overwhelming majority of seats in the constituent assembly that will rewrite the 1998 constitution.
Ecuador has struggled with instability over the past decade, with eight presidents in as many years, making it the most volatile country in South America. Correa’s aggressive move to remake the constitution was met with strong resistance. In March, 57 members of Congress were expelled while trying to block the preliminary referendum that sought permission to modify the constitution. In ordering the expulsion, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal found that the congressmen were trying to obstruct the electoral process. Their removal, which was enforced by police, eased the way for the drafting of a new constitution.
During a radio address in September, Correa called on the constituent assembly to create stronger laws to regulate the country’s media, in order to “stop them from being able to manipulate information.” The president argued that media outlets, many of them controlled by business conglomerates based in Guayaquil, could not inform Ecuadorans objectively, local news reports said. “The constituent assembly will have to think how the media could rectify erroneous information, as well as better regulate all media, especially when there is so much concentration in a few hands, with powerful interests,” Correa said.
Local journalists expressed concern over the president’s comments. In his weekly radio show, in interviews, and in press conferences, Correa was aggressive in lambasting journalists as “human misery,” “liars,” and “incompetents” who “publish trash.” Meeting for the first time in November, the constituent assembly seemed eager to take bold action. The assembly suspended Congress until the new charter was drafted; no official press proposals were immediately announced.
Media coverage of the government was critical, although CPJ research found that it was not generally one-sided or biased. Some opinion pieces challenged the president in harsh terms. In a March 9 editorial headlined “Official Vandalism,” the Quito-based daily La Hora said Correa intended to rule Ecuador “with turmoil, rocks, and sticks,” and described the president’s behavior as “shameful.”
Correa did not take the criticism in stride. He filed a criminal defamation lawsuit against La Hora in May, accusing the paper’s president, Francisco Vivanco Riofrío, of showing disrespect and causing “moral damage,” according to the complaint reviewed by CPJ. The lawsuit was based on Article 230 of the country’s penal code, which sets prison penalties of up to two years for “threats or libel that would offend the president.” Correa said he would drop the complaint only if the daily’s executive publicly apologized. La Hora declined.
The lawsuit against La Hora sparked controversy. Correa discussed the situation at length during his weekly radio address on May 19, saying that Ecuadorans enjoyed complete freedom of expression but more control was needed. “Freedom implies responsibility, but there’s no liberty here. There’s only lack of control,” said Correa.
Neither free expression nor control was much on display during a discussion on that same program. When guest Emilio Palacio, editor of the Guayaquil-based daily El Universo, suggested Correa had shown intolerance to media criticism, the president demanded Palacio leave. “Journalists don’t bother me. Mediocrity, incompetence, bad faith, and lies bother me—and there’s a lot of that in the press,” Correa said. Following the two-hour radio show, an irritated Congress passed a resolution demanding that Correa show respect for freedom of expression. The statement urged the president to “exercise tolerance and respect for divergent opinions.”
Critics said that with his aggressive rhetoric against the media, Correa appeared to be emulating allies Hugo Chávez Frías of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia. In July, Correa announced that he would no longer hold press conferences or interviews (although he did take part in at least one later interview, with a Spanish outlet). All questions for the president must be submitted to his office in writing, he said.
Correa had praised Chávez’s decision to pull veteran Venezuelan broadcaster RCTV off the air after accusing the station of conspiracy in a 2002 coup. He later told the Quito-based daily Hoy in June that he would cancel the broadcast license of any Ecuadoran television or radio station that conspired against his government. In September, the government announced that it was looking into possible “grave faults” committed by the national broadcaster Teleamazonas, known for its strong opposition views.
Correa is also following in the path of Chávez and Morales by launching a state-owned television channel that will reflect the government’s official voice. With a US$5 million grant from the Venezuelan government, Canal Ecuador TV began broadcasting constituent assembly meetings in November.