Attacks on the Press 2010: Ecuador

Top Developments
• Journalists attacked, broadcasters censored during police uprising.
• Correa administration orders broadcasters to air official rebuttals.

Key Statistic
6: Hours during which broadcasters were told to suspend programming, carry state news reports on police revolt.

President Rafael Correa’s administration used censorship powers throughout the year to supplant independent news and commentary. Authorities compelled critical broadcasters to interrupt news shows to air official rebuttals. And in September, when hundreds of police officers staged violent nationwide protests over plans to reduce their bonus pay, the Communications Ministry ordered broadcasters to halt their own news reports and carry programming from state-owned Ecuador TV.


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Regional Analysis:
In Latin America,
A Return of Censorship

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Three people were killed and dozens injured in the September 30 police revolt, news reports said. Airports were temporarily shut down, highways were blocked, and looting was reported in the capital, Quito. The chaotic conditions reached their nadir when rebel officers shoved tear gas cans and bottles of water at Correa as the president tried to speak at a Quito police barracks. When he was taken to a local hospital to be treated for effects of the tear gas, the rebelling officers effectively barricaded him in the facility for about 12 hours, news reports said.

At least 22 reporters and photojournalists were attacked, threatened, or harassed as they covered the police uprising across the country, according to the Quito-based press freedom group Fundamedios. News reports described officers throwing tear gas canisters at reporters, assaulting journalists, and confiscating equipment.

In the midst of the rebellion, the Communications Ministry directed all TV and radio stations to interrupt their own programming and carry only the state broadcast. The national television networks Ecuavisa, Teleamazonas, and Canal Uno all switched to official news reports from Ecuador TV, whose coverage focused on the government’s viewpoint and featured an array of interviews with high-ranking officials, journalists told CPJ. The ministry lifted the order after about six hours, journalists said.

Under a state of emergency, which the government had declared, the president and members of his administration are authorized to interrupt programming in order to broadcast official messages. But the government aired no announcements, according to news reports and CPJ interviews. Instead, the decree cut off independent media coverage and replaced it with government-approved information, thus depriving Ecuadorans of diverse news sources at a critical moment.

Correa has made no secret of his contempt for much of the news media, calling critical journalists “ignorant,” “trash-talking,” and “liars.” Following in the steps of Venezuela President Hugo Chávez, the Ecuadoran leader has made regular use of cadenas–nationwide addresses that pre-empt all broadcasts–to air his views. The administration went further in 2010, using the broadcast law that authorizes cadenas to interrupt independent news shows and impose its views. Local press advocates said that the government was misusing the broadcast law and coercing speech.

On October 12, for example, the government ordered Quito-based Teleamazonas to interrupt its political news program, “Los Desayunos,” to air an official rebuttal to comments made on a previous show that suggested the ruling party’s congressmen were irrelevant. María Josefa Coronel, the show’s host, had laughed at the remarks. The government notified Teleamazonas, a network known for its harsh opposition views, that it had to air a rebuttal on the show’s next edition, and an official from the president’s communications office arrived at the station’s doorstep with an audiotape, Deputy News Director Carlos Jijón told CPJ. In the rebuttal, a male voiceover disparaged Coronel and vilified the show’s panelists and guests, the Guayaquil-based daily El Universo reported. Former President Lucio Gutiérrez, leader of the political opposition, was among those guests.

The government also forced Teleamazonas to air rebuttals on the morning news show “La Hora de Jorge Ortiz.” As in Coronel’s case, the tapes employed a male voiceover to criticize the host and challenge other comments made during the program, the show’s anchor, Ortiz, told CPJ. In August, the frustrated journalist resigned from Teleamazonas, saying he didn’t want to stand in the way of the network’s pending sale, which needed government authorization.

While other channels were also directed to air rebuttals, Teleamazonas has faced the most intense censorship. It was forced off the air for three days in December 2009 after regulators found it had “incited public disorder” with a story about the potential repercussions of natural gas exploration off southern Puná Island.

The Teleamazonas sale, which was finalized in September, was prompted by relatively new legal requirements. Station owner Fidel Egas, who was also a principal in Pichincha Bank, sold his ownership stake to local, Peruvian, and Spanish investors, according to news reports. Under constitutional changes passed in 2008, bankers are barred from owning media companies.

Authorities in the country’s interior harassed a critical journalist. On August 20, a provincial court issued an arrest warrant for reporter Juan Alcívar on terrorism charges that CPJ found to be fabricated. Alcívar, a correspondent for the Quito-based daily La Hora and reporter for local radio station El Nuevo Sol, was covering a presidential visit to the northern town of La Concordia on July 19 when an unidentified individual tossed a tear gas canister. Two municipal employees accused the journalist, a critic of La Concordia Mayor Walter Ocampo, of tossing the canister. But El Universo reporter Manuel Toro, who was covering the president’s visit, told CPJ that Alcívar clearly did not throw the canister. Alcívar had been threatened for his work as well. Fundamedios reported in July that vandals had painted a note on his car that said, “Shut up, and stop screwing with the mayor.”

A legislative committee drafted a communications bill that included restrictive provisions such as a requirement that reporters hold university degrees, and vague demands that news media run “truthful information.” Press advocates feared the bill, which was pending in late year, could open the door to further government censorship.