Attacks on the Press in 2008: Ecuador

A July government takeover of almost 200 businesses, including two private television stations that drew nearly 40 percent of the country’s news audience, enabled leftist President Rafael Correa to further his political agenda and gain greater control of the media. After the move, Correa won a decisive victory in a referendum on a new constitution that will broaden executive powers and potentially weaken press freedom.

On July 8, members of the government’s Deposit Guarantee Agency, along with dozens of police officers, raided the Quito offices of television station Gamavisión and the premises in Quito and Guayaquil of TC Televisión. Deposit Guarantee, 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 190 properties. The government alleged that the broadcast companies had ties to Grupo Isaías, owned by brothers Roberto and William Isaías, who had moved to Miami. President Correa’s administration said Grupo Isaías owed $661 million to Ecuador because of the 1998 collapse of its banking institution, Filanbanco.

TC Televisión, the station with the largest audience in the coastal city of Guayaquil, and Gamavisión, one of the top four in the Quito region, halted news broadcasting for a few hours but resumed transmissions the next day. Enrique Arosemena, president of the state-owned television station ECTV, was immediately placed in charge of the stations. Arosemena said the outlets were “going to have a new editorial line, like all channels have, depending on their administrators,” The Associated Press said. José Toledo, a journalist and former official close to Correa, was named vice president of news programming and content.

The government’s decision sparked immediate controversy. Economics Minister Fausto Ortiz resigned in opposition to the takeover shortly after the measure was announced. The stations’ owners, who said they had no business connections to Grupo Isaías, called the seizures an attack on free expression. Local journalists questioned the timing of the decision. The government’s actions, they said, came as Correa was seeking to boost support for a new constitution that was headed to a national referendum. Analysts said that the subsequent change in the stations’ editorial stance favored the Ecuadoran administration. Reporters also believed the takeover compromised the diversity of news coverage ahead of the vote.

“The whole thing is a political scheme by Correa to grab the group’s television stations, put government loyalists at their helm, and control the airwaves to win a September referendum that would allow him to tighten his grip on the country and seek re-election,” wrote Andrés Oppenheimer, a CPJ board member, in his column for The Miami Herald.

The Ecuadoran government strongly defended the decision and denied the takeover was an assault on press freedom. Correa said the confiscation was aimed at recovering money that belonged to Ecuadorans, according to press reports. Newly appointed Economics Minister Wilma Salgado said the government did not intend to take control or interfere with the stations, and she stressed that press freedom would be protected in Ecuador.

During the weeks that followed, the government confiscated hundreds of other properties, including the editorial house that published the Quito-based daily Hoy. The government said it planned to sell all confiscated properties to raise money for depositors who lost savings after the bank collapse. In early October, the Deposit Guarantee Agency announced that a total of 264 seized companies had become state property.

The press continued to have a contentious relationship with Correa and his administration. He repeatedly described the country’s news media as “mediocre” and “corrupt,” saying that it often “twists the truth.” The Ecuadoran media was often critical of Correa’s administration, a CPJ analysis found, but its criticism was not inflammatory.

In a September 28 referendum, 64 percent of Ecuadorans voted to approve the new constitution, which broadened the executive branch’s power by allowing the president to run for two more consecutive terms, while giving the executive more control over the economy and the legislative and judicial branches. The new constitution took effect October 16, and a legislative commission was busy in late year drafting laws to implement its provisions.

Press freedom advocates expressed concern about provisions in the new constitution that could restrict guarantees on free expression. Article 19 said that “the law will regulate the prevalence of informational, educational, and cultural content in the media’s programming and will promote the creation of spaces for national and independent producers.” César Ricaurte, executive director of the local press freedom group Fundamedios, said this clause could open the door for government regulation of the news media. Ricaurte was also concerned by Article 18, which stated that all individuals have the right to “find, receive, exchange, produce, and release truthful, verified, timely, contextualized, and plural information without censorship” with subsequent responsibilities. Ricaurte said that the many conditions placed on this supposed anticensorship provision would seriously weaken freedom of expression.

Critics also pointed to the July 7 closing of Guayaquil-based Radio Sucre as an example of the government’s attempt to gain media control. According to the station’s manager, Gabriel Arroba, representatives of the National Council of Telecommunications (Conatel) and local police closed and sealed the station, alleging it was using an illegal frequency.  Arroba denied the claims and said he had sent Conatel documents showing Radio Sucre had been allotted the frequency. Days before the closing, during a radio address, Correa was harshly critical of the station’s owner, Vicente Arroba (the station manager’s father), whom he called a man without “moral authority.” The president’s criticism of Vicente Arroba, also a city council member, came after Radio Sucre’s owner used the station to urge local residents to march against crime in Guayaquil. Correa said the march was politically motivated.

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