A passer-by stops to look at a newspaper the day after Correa is re-elected. (AFP/Rodrigo Buendia)
A passer-by stops to look at a newspaper the day after Correa is re-elected. (AFP/Rodrigo Buendia)

Battle between Correa, Ecuadoran press to wage on

In the wake of President Rafael Correa’s landslide re-election on Sunday, many Ecuadoran reporters are bracing for another four years of conflict with his left-leaning government.  Neither side claims to relish the prospect, but continued clashes seem inevitable given the bad blood that has developed between them. 

In this series
• Part 1: Repression deepens
• Part 2: Breakfast bulletin
• Part 3: Election without news
• Part 4: Four more years

Since he was first elected in 2006, Correa has hurled insults and filed lawsuits against reporters and news outlets and promoted a series of legal measures to roll back press freedoms, moves that landed Ecuador on CPJ’s Risk List, which identifies the 10 countries worldwide where press freedom suffered the most in 2012. All of this has turned Ecuador into one of the hemisphere’s most restrictive nations for the press, according to CPJ research–and there may be more to come.

In fact, fighting words were part of the 2013 campaign platform for Alianza Pais, Correa’s political party. It describes a state of “permanent confrontation” with media outlets that are described as “conservative, backwards, and opposed to progress.”

“It’s going to be four more years of war,” predicted Christian Zurita, an investigative reporter for El Universo, Ecuador’s leading daily newspaper. Zurita was sued by Correa in 2011 for a book he co-authored about the president’s brother.

Still, he said this “war” will likely evolve. Zurita predicted that the government would pursue a more subtle strategy regarding the media to avoid negative publicity. For example, CPJ and other press freedom groups expressed alarm last year when Correa won a $40 million judgment against El Universo‘s owners and one of its journalists. (Soon after, Correa pardoned the defendants.)

Zurita speculated that going forward, Correa might choose to sue journalists for smaller amounts. That way, he said, the media would be intimidated but the lawsuits would garner fewer negative headlines. “Rather than $10 million he might ask for $20,000,” Zurita said. “There will be less noise and less international attention.”

Other government policies that might appear to be friendly toward independent media could ultimately result in a more docile press corps, some analysts and journalists say.

For example, the government in December raised the minimum wage for journalists to $817 a month, a 69 percent increase. Because many smaller news outlets may lack the money to pay their staff that amount, Correa has proposed that his government provide these outlets with subsidies to cover the difference. 

Lucía Lemos, dean of the journalism school at Catholic University in Quito, told the daily El Comercio that the subsidy idea appears to be another way to discourage critical coverage of the government. She said journalists might hold back on writing critical stories for fear of being fired.

“What kind of independence are journalists going to have?” added Gustavo Cortez, an editor at El Universo. “Fidelity towards the government’s position may not be explicitly demanded but it will be expected.”

However, Patricio Barriga, the government’s acting secretary of communications, pointed out that many journalists already pull their punches for other reasons. Due to their low salaries, he said, many are susceptible to accepting payoffs for slanted coverage. He pointed out that some radio reporters are paid $50 a month and are expected to augment their salaries by selling ads for their programs–which can breed conflicts of interest and one-sided reporting.

The government, Barriga said, wants to “democratize information and ensure the right of freedom of expression” through initiatives that promote the formation of well-trained professional journalists earning a decent salary.

Another issue likely to set the private media on edge is a proposed communications law that has been the subject of debate in the National Assembly since 2009. Though its provisions have been modified over the years, CPJ research found that the bill would roll back press freedom by promoting self-censorship and restrictions on criticism of public officials.

In the past, Correa has lacked a majority in the National Assembly. As of Wednesday, the makeup of the incoming legislature had yet to be confirmed. But based on pre-electoral polls and Correa’s easy victory–initial tallies say he garnered about 57 percent of the vote–his ruling Alianza Pais party was expected to win a majority of the 137 seats. That would pave the way for passage of the bill, which was listed as one of the party’s top objectives.

“Things are going to get a lot more complicated,” said César Ricaurte, who heads the Quito-based press freedom group Fundamedios. “If they get a majority in the National Assembly, we are going to get a much more restrictive communications law than the one the one they have been promoting.”

On Sunday while celebrating his victory, Correa made clear that the communications law would be a priority. “One thing that has to be fixed is the press, which totally lacks ethics and scruples and wants to judge, legislate, and govern antidemocratically,” Correa said, according to news reports.

Orlando Pérez, editor of the government-controlled El Telégrafo newspaper, pointed out that Correa’s aggressive position towards the media is one of the reasons for his popularity and that the president is unlikely to alter a successful formula.

“Correa once said that he was not out to win the Miss Congeniality contest,” Pérez said. “But what he is doing (regarding the media) has the support of the public….  If he didn’t do these things, maybe he would not be in the position that he is in now.”

Furthermore, the political opposition remains fractured and weak. Guillermo Lasso, the runner-up in Sunday’s presidential vote, received only about 23 percent of the vote, according to exit polls. In the absence of strong political rivals, Correa may continue to paint the press as his principal enemy, a role that Pérez claimed the country’s private media have been all too eager to assume.

“The press has taken up the role of the political opposition and that has been a very grave error,” Pérez said. “The president has been winning this battle.”

Juan Carlos Calderón, the editor of independent Quito-based Vanguardia newsmagazine, said the conflict has been damaging to both sides. He called for a dialogue between the media and the government to build bridges. That, he said, would involve isolating the “hawks,” a term he used to describe the most radical and aggressive figures within both the media and the government.

But even if there is no détente, Calderón said a free and vibrant Ecuadoran press would survive the Correa era. “It’s hard to wipe out a long history (of press freedom) in just a few years,” Calderón said. “We have survived in some very difficult times and we will continue to survive.”