Government seizes two TV outlets and closes a radio station

New York, July 8, 2008–Ecuadoran government agents seized two private television stations early this morning and shuttered a critical radio station late Monday night. The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by allegations that the actions were politically motivated.

Members of the government’s Deposit Guarantee Agency (AGD), backed by dozens of police officers, seized the Quito offices of local television station Gamavisión and the premises in Quito and Guayaquil of TC Televisión, according to local and international reports. The government said the TV stations were seized because of alleged ties to Grupo Isaías, a conglomerate owned by bankers accused of embezzlement in the late 1990s, according to press reports. AGD, a state agency that protects depositors in banks that closed or went bankrupt during the financial crisis of the late 1990s, took over more than 100 other properties linked to the Grupo Isaías in the past day, The Associated Press reported. The current owners of the stations say they have no business connections to the two men charged in the embezzlement case, both of whom are fugitives, AP said.

Valeria Mena, Gamavisión’s anchor, began today’s morning news show by reporting the seizure, but the program was replaced minutes later by a comedy show, local press reports said. According to the national daily La Hora, both stations halted normal news programming today. TC Televisión is the station with the biggest audience in Guayaquil, while Gamavisión is among the top four stations in the Quito region.

Local media reported that President Rafael Correa had replaced the vice president of news and the manager for both TV stations. José Toledo, a journalist and former official close to Correa, was named vice president of news for the stations. Toledo told reporters that the appointment was made last night during a meeting at the presidential residence. According to Toledo, Minister of Economy Fausto Ortiz resigned during that meeting in opposition to the government’s decision.

Representatives of the two TV stations said the seizures were an attack on free expression, according to press reports. The government’s action came as Correa is seeking to boost support for a new constitution that is due to go before voters at a referendum later this year. The proposed constitution would relax presidential term limits, increase the economy minister’s political powers, and augment government control of oil production, according to Reuters.

Alejandro Ponce, a law professor at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, told CPJ that Ecuadoran law calls for an autonomous entity to be appointed as trustee of a seized property. Correa’s decision to replace the news director with a political appointee could be seen as form of government control, Ponce said.

Ponce said the situation is complicated by the closure on Monday of Radio Sucre, a critical radio station based out of Guayaquil.

“We are concerned by allegations that the government is using the cover of a criminal case to silence private broadcasters,” said CPJ Americas Senior Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría. “Ecuadorans have the right to multiple sources of news and opinion ahead of the crucial constitutional referendum. We urge authorities to allow news programming at both television stations, and let Radio Sucre resume broadcasting.”

At 10 p.m. on Monday, representatives of the National Council of Telecommunications (Conatel), accompanied by police, closed and sealed Radio Sucre’s offices, Station Manager Gabriel Arroba told CPJ. Authorities then drove to the station’s transmission tower and confiscated equipment, impeding the station’s ability to continue broadcasting, Arroba said.

According to Arroba, Conatel authorities presented the radio station with a closure notification earlier on Monday alleging it was using a frequency it had not been allotted. Arroba said the law grants an outlet 30 days to appeal such a notice; he said he immediately sent Conatel documents showing Radio Sucre had been allotted the frequency.

Arroba told CPJ that following the June 23 death of Radio Sucre journalist Raúl Rodríguez Coronel, station owner Vicente Arroba used his radio show to urge Guayaquil residents to march against crime in the city. (Vicente Arroba, Gabriel’s father, is also a city council member.) On Saturday, during a radio address, Correa was harshly critical of Vicente Arroba, whom he called a man without moral authority, according to press reports. Correa added that the march was politically motivated by the opposition.