Bogotá, October 4, 2012--The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the exorbitant fine imposed upon a Quito newsmagazine for an opinion column related to a national referendum and urges Ecuadoran authorities to ensure that election regulations are not used to punish outlets for critical coverage.
The Ecuadoran Electoral Litigation Court on September 26 fined Vistazo US$80,000 in connection with its May 6, 2011, editorial that urged voters to reject parts of a May 7 referendum ballot that included measures giving the government greater control over media content and ownership, according to news reports. In its ruling, the court said the editorial constituted political propaganda and violated a legal prohibition against "disseminating political or electoral propaganda" in the days leading up to an election.
The editorial, titled "A Resounding No," had urged citizens to vote against two of 10 questions on the referendum ballot relating to the media. One question asked voters whether media companies should be banned from owning non-media companies and another proposed the creation of a government media oversight panel under a new communications law. The editorial had also voiced concerns about two other questions that proposed changes to the judicial branch.
All 10 questions on the ballot were approved by the voters in May 2011, according to news reports.
Five pro-government groups filed a complaint against Vistazo last year, but in a ruling on December 2011, court president Ximena Endara wrote that the Vistazo editorial constituted protected free speech, according to news reports. President Rafael Correa publicly condemned the decision, which was then reversed by new magistrates in court last week. The magazine has not yet decided whether to appeal the case at the constitutional court, according to local press freedom group Fundamedios.
Vistazo released a statement saying the ruling "penalizes the right to editorialize because it confuses opinion with electoral propaganda," according to news reports. The magazine also referred to an editorial in the pro-government daily El Telégrafo, published on the same day, that urged voters to approve all 10 ballot questions. El Telégrafo was not sanctioned, and Vistazo said in its statement that there appeared to be "two different standards" for judging the media. El Telégrafo responded in an editorial, saying Vistazo had twisted the meaning of its article and that it was not in violation of the law.
In January, seven months after the Vistazo editorial appeared, changes to the electoral law were approved that extended the existing restrictions on election coverage and included a provision prohibiting the media from "promoting directly or indirectly" the campaigns of political candidates during the 90 days leading up to an election.
"It is very worrisome that Ecuadoran authorities are punishing Vistazo for expressing an opinion, which they claim constitutes political propaganda, on important ballot questions, especially in light of the new restrictions being imposed in the electoral law," said Carlos Lauría, CPJ's senior program coordinator for the Americas, from New York. "In the months leading up to February's presidential elections, Ecuadoran authorities should stand up for the principles of democracy by allowing the news media to cover the campaign without fear of reprisal."
A CPJ special report found that Correa's administration has led Ecuador into a new era of widespread repression by filing defamation lawsuits in civil and criminal courts, pre-empting private news broadcasts, enacting restrictive legal measures, and smearing critics.
- For more data and analysis on Ecuador, visit CPJ's Ecuador page here.