• Correa assails news media, and regulators target critical outlets.
• Media legislation could restrict freedom of expression.
3: Days that regulators ordered Teleamazonas off the air.
Re-elected by a landslide in April, President Rafael Correa intensified his attacks on critical news media, calling them ignorant and deceitful. As Correa used his weekly radio address to assail the press, his administration singled out critical outlets for regulatory action. Legislators were debating media legislation that would restrict freedom of expression, and two journalists were imprisoned during the year on defamation charges.
THE PRESS: 2009
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So focused was Correa on disagreements with the press that he added a segment, “Press Freedom Is Now for All,” to his Saturday morning address in order to air his disputes. Among the outlets most frequently targeted were the national dailies El Universo, La Hora, El Comercio, and El Expreso, and the television network Teleamazonas. The president described such news outlets as “a sewer,” “ignorant,” “trash talking,” “liars,” “unethical,” “mediocre,” and “political actors who are trying to oppose the revolutionary government.”
Teleamazonas, a Quito-based private broadcaster and harsh critic of the administration, became the focus of government regulators. In late December, regulators ordered Teleamazonas off the air for three days after finding the station had “incited public disorder” with a May story exploring the potential effect that natural gas exploration off southern Puná Island would have on the local fishing industry, according to news reports.
The National Council of Radio and Television (CONARTEL) had cited the network twice earlier in the year. After Teleamazonas aired a bullfighting commercial during an 8:30 p.m. slot in February, CONARTEL cited the station for violating a 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. ban on bullfight broadcasts, according to news accounts and CPJ interviews. When Teleamazonas aired a news story in May that questioned the legality of a vote-counting facility in the coastal city of Guayaquil, regulators said the station violated Article 58 of the Broadcasting Law, which prohibits airing “news based on unfounded allegations that could produce social unrest.” The station was fined only nominal amounts in the first two cases. But by building a record of supposed violations during the year, regulators were able to invoke the late-year suspension.
In his public comments, Correa had fanned the regulatory flames. In August, the president called for regulators to shutter Teleamazonas after the station aired an audio recording of a 2008 presidential palace discussion about constitutional changes, according to local news reports.
César Ricaurte, executive director of the local press freedom group Fundamedios, said the president’s verbal assaults created a climate for physical attacks against the press. In May and December, unidentified individuals tossed homemade explosives outside the Quito offices of Teleamazonas, press reports said. No injuries were reported. In February, unidentified assailants in Guayaquil fired 12 gunshots at the offices of the weekly Mi Pueblo after the publication of a series of articles criticizing Correa’s administration.
In late year, a legislative committee drafted a repressive communications bill that would set educational requirements for journalists, stiffen criminal penalties for press offenses, and allow some government censorship. The bill drew strong public and news media opposition, prompting the National Assembly in December to postpone action and pledge revisions. The communications bill is among legislation intended to implement a new constitution adopted by voters in 2008. The constitution itself contains provisions troubling to press freedom advocates, including Article 19, which states that the government “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.”
The regulatory system itself underwent an overhaul. In August, Correa signed a decree creating the Ministry of Telecommunications and Information, which, among other things, took over the regulatory activities of both CONARTEL and the National Council of Telecommunications.
The government retained control of two television stations, TC Televisión and Gamavisión, that it had confiscated in 2008. The government alleged that the stations’ owners had ties to a business conglomerate accused of causing the 1998 collapse of the Ecuadoran banking institution, Filibanco. The stations’ owners denied the accusations. The government placed two journalists with close ties to Correa in charge of the stations, and said it would auction them to recoup US$661 million it said was owed to Filibanco’s investors. By late 2009, though, both stations remained under official control.
Violence and obstruction were reported in provincial areas. Several individuals burst into the offices shared by local TV station Telecosta and Radio Gaviota in the northern city of Esmeraldas in April and destroyed the outlets’ broadcasting equipment, Fundamedios reported. According to Telecosta’s president, the attack was likely retribution for stories criticizing local authorities. Later that month, a group of protesters in the southern province of El Oro besieged the offices of local radio station Onda Sur and warned the staff to stop reporting critically on a local mayor’s bid for re-election, the regional press freedom group Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS) said. In May, assailants believed to be from the same group broke the station’s windows, sprayed the building with gasoline, and lit it on fire, IPYS reported. The building sustained minor damage.
In the country’s interior, police routinely harassed and detained local journalists, press freedom advocates reported. Francisco Farinango, a reporter for the local Radio Intipacho in the northern Pichincha region, was briefly detained in January while reporting on a protest by the indigenous Tupigachi community against a law that allows for mineral extraction in their territory, according to local press freedom groups. That same month, Adolfo Caiminagua Herrera, a correspondent in the southern city of Machala for the national daily Diario Opinión, was arrested while photographing police at a local voting center. Israel Díaz, a cameraman for the local TV station Lago Sistema Televisión in the province of Sucumbíos, was beaten by police officers as he attempted to cover a routine police operation in April, the groups said. Díaz was not seriously hurt, but his colleague, Vicente Albán, a reporter for the same station, was detained for several hours.
In June, the Criminal Court of El Oro sentenced Milton Nelson Chacaguasay Flores, director of the weekly publication La Verdad in the city of Machala, to four months in prison on libel charges. The case stemmed from a 2007 story accusing Finance Minister Francisco Quevedo Madrid of having links to a man charged in a nationwide Ponzi scheme. Chacaguasay had barely been out of prison when the sentence was imposed. He had been freed in May after serving most of a 10-month prison sentence on separate libel charges.
A second journalist was jailed on defamation charges during the year. Freddy Aponte Aponte, a reporter for local radio station Luz y Vida in the southwestern city of Loja, was released in January after serving most of a six-month term. He had been convicted of defaming a former mayor.