Ecuador newspaper shutters its presses, citing government pressure

Blaming government harassment and a related advertising slowdown, the daily newspaper Hoy ceased its Quito-based print edition Monday, and said it would transform into an online-only newspaper.

In an editorial published in its final print edition on Sunday, Hoy said that Ecuador’s restrictive Communications Law, which went into effect last year, and the government’s constant attacks on independent media had created “a scenario totally adverse to the development of a plural, free, and independent newspaper.”

Mauricio Alarcón, director of projects for the Quito-based freedom of expression organization Fundamedios, praised Hoy for consistently producing quality watchdog journalism since its founding in 1982, and for opening its editorial pages to a wide range of opinion. Its daily circulation was only about 15,000 copies, but he said Hoy has been an influential news source.

As an online venture, Hoy may have less impact because many Ecuadorans still like to read their news on paper, Alarcón said. “The move towards news on the Internet has started but Ecuador is not at the same levels as the developed world,” he told CPJ.

Traditional newspapers and magazines everywhere face major financial challenges. But the situation is especially difficult in Ecuador where–in addition to the normal business pressures–the government of President Rafael Correa has made it a top priority to stifle the independent media, CPJ research shows.

The Correa government has championed the Communications Law, which acts as an official straightjacket on the press, and has withdrawn advertising. Meanwhile, the president has sued newspapers and investigative journalists, and constantly attacks and ridicules reporters in his weekly televised addresses.

As a result, “media companies are simply trying to survive,” César Montúfar, a Quito academic who often writes about the press, told CPJ.

Montúfar said the long-term plan of many print and electronic news media is to cut costs, avoid problems with the government and remain above water until a new president less hostile towards the press comes to power in Ecuador. But they may be waiting a long time. Correa, who was first elected in 2006 and has since won two more terms, is pushing for changes to the Constitution that would scrap presidential term limits and allow him to run for re-election in 2017 and beyond.

Hoy was especially vulnerable to government pressure.

Like other leading newspapers, such as El Universo and El Comercio, Hoy has lost revenue from both the public and private sectors because of the migration of advertising to other outlets, and from a government campaign against independent media. Alarcón and other analysts say that many businesses do not want to be associated with critical news outlets for fear of government reprisals, such as tax audits or the loss of public contracts. But in Sunday’s editorial, Hoy noted another susceptibility–its significant income from the printing of school textbooks. Hoy said that due to pressure from the government, it had also lost these publishing contracts.

Adding further pressure, the Communications Law has made it difficult for Hoy to find alternative financing due to the restrictions it places on banks and other businesses from investing in media properties. All of these factors “force us to take this difficult decision” to halt the print edition, said the editorial.

Besides the financial restrictions, the Communications Law has handcuffed Hoy’s journalists. The law mandates a state watchdog, called the Superintendency of Information and Communications, or Supercom, to monitor media content and is filled with ambiguous language demanding that journalists provide accurate and balanced information or face civil or criminal penalties.

The Hoy editorial said these provisions had led to self-censorship at the newspaper. In addition, Hoy stands accused of violating Article 18 of the law that states that the media must provide coverage of events of public interest. The problem arose when Correa complained that Hoy and three other newspapers had failed to provide adequate coverage of his May trip to Chile. As a result, the newspapers could face thousands of dollars in fines. The Supercom has yet to rule on the case.

Fernando Alvarado, Ecuador’s secretary for communications, told CPJ by email, “This is not a case of free expression, nor is it a case of an attack or hostility against the press” by the government.

He said Hoy is simply not a viable business enterprise, and that it had experienced economic problems for 14 years, long before the Communciations Law went into effect in 2013. Alvarado said government ads never made up more than 10% of Hoy‘s total ad space, although he did not address the issue of contracts for textbooks.

Alvarado said there are about 200 printed newspapers and magazines in Ecuador, and that if the Communciations Law was so damaging to Hoy, “why didn’t it affect the other 200 publications?”

Yet Hoy’s print edition isn’t the only casualty of the government’s battles with the news media. Last year, Vanguardia, a Quito newsweekly that for eight years published hard-hitting investigations about public officials, shut down amid a loss of advertising and frequent government harassment. It was Ecuador’s only print outlet dedicated almost entirely to investigative journalism.

Vanguardia’s former editor, Juan Carlos Calderón, has tried to continue the newsweekly’s mission by founding the online magazine Plan V. The name roughly translates in English as “the alternative” while the “V” pays homage to Vanguardia. And like that now-defunct newsweekly, Plan V has produced high-impact coverage on insurance scams that bilked government institutions, on accidents involving government helicopters, and on the increasing militarization of the Ecuadoran-Colombian border.

While less expensive to produce, publishing online does not guarantee survival. Plan V, founded with the help of a grant from Fundamedios, started out with 13 staffers, including seven reporters, but today has only Calderón, a web designer, some freelance contributors, and a couple of computers located in a barren workspace. As in the case of Hoy, Plan V’s criticism of the Correa government has scared away potential clients. As a result, it has virtually no advertising and may soon be forced to shut down. “The tank is empty,” Calderón told CPJ.

It’s unclear whether Hoy’s online-only venture will meet the same fate. Printing costs will disappear but so will subscription income as well as print advertising which, however small, is still more lucrative than online ads. For now, the newspaper is putting on a brave face.

“Despite all the difficulties,” the paper said in Sunday’s editorial, “Hoy looks to the future with optimism.”