Bogotá, June 16, 2015--Ecuador's state media oversight commission on Saturday fined the independent daily El Universo about US$350,000, accusing the paper of unsatisfactorily publishing a government rebuttal to a story, according to news reports.
The move was the latest in a series of sanctions meted out by the Superintendency of Information and Communication (SUPERCOM), which was created under Ecuador's two-year-old Communications Law. CPJ research shows the law is one of the most restrictive in the Americas and is filled with ambiguous language demanding that journalists provide accurate and balanced information or face civil or criminal penalties.
"This ridiculous and disproportionate fine represents the latest move by the Ecuadoran government to censor critical news and control the flow of information," said Carlos Lauría, CPJ Senior Americas Program Coordinator, from New York. "Apparently, legally harassing journalists isn't enough for Ecuadoran authorities--now, they want to write the headlines and articles too."
On March 22, El Universo published a front-page story that alleged shortfalls in government funding and inefficiencies at state-run hospitals, which are part of the state's social security health system, known as the IESS. The paper said its journalists attempted to interview the IESS director and sent him a list of questions but received no response before publishing the story.
The next day, President Rafael Correa criticized the story on Twitter, questioned its statistics, which had been provided by IESS, and said the paper had failed to get the government's side of the story. Under Article 24 of the Communications Law, anyone who feels their dignity or honor has been adversely affected by a media report has the right of response.
On April 17, Fernando Alvarado Espinel, who heads the government's Secretariat of Communications (SECOM), ordered El Universo to print an extensive rebuttal, which was written by the government's economics minister and published April 19.
But El Universo wrote its own headlines for the rebuttal, instead of publishing those furnished by SECOM, according to news reports. It also did not publish the SECOM-provided story summaries, which claimed the original article was designed to fool El Universo's readers into believing the state health system was in crisis.
César Pérez, one of the directors of El Universo, told CPJ the Communications Law said nothing about publishing headlines or story summaries provided by a government entity. "That would be like allowing officials from the president's office to operate out of our newsroom," Pérez told CPJ.
SUPERCOM deemed the newspaper's handling of the rebuttal to be unsatisfactory, according to a communiqué published by the regulatory body on June 12. The regulatory body fined El Universo an amount equal to 10 percent of the newspaper's average monthly revenue over the previous quarter, or about US$350,000, according to the Quito-based free speech organization Fundamedios. The newspaper was also ordered again to publish the government's rebuttal with the headlines and story summaries provided by SECOM and to publish a formal apology on its website for at least seven consecutive days.
Pérez told CPJ the newspaper stood by its original story and said that all of the facts and figures in the original story were correct. He said the government's demands amounted to editorial interference, which he said is unconstitutional. He said El Universo was appealing the sanctions.
The El Universo decision comes two weeks after an Ecuadoran judge sided with SUPERCOM in a May 13 decision to fine the independent newspaper La Hora US$3,540 after the paper failed to cover a February state-of-the-city speech by José Bolívar Castillo, the mayor of Loja in southern Ecuador, according to Fundamedios.
Bolívar Castillo, who according to news reports is a political ally of Correa's, filed a complaint stating that the lack of coverage deprived local residents of learning about how their tax money was being spent. Article 18 of the Communications Law states that the media must provide coverage of events of public interest, and that the deliberate omission of such news constitutes prior censorship, which is outlawed.
In a hearing on May 5, a representative for the paper, Santiago Guarderas, said La Hora had already informed readers about the event in an editorial published on February 23, according to Fundamedios. La Hora editor Luis Vivanco told Fundamedios that the newspaper would not pay the fine.
Under Correa's government, Ecuador has one of the worst press freedom records in the region, with journalists subject to legal measures, defamation suits, and public insults, according to CPJ research. In 2012, the owners of El Universo were convicted on charges of criminally defaming Correa and sentenced to three years in jail and fines totaling $40 million. The president later pardoned the paper. In 2014, El Universo was fined close to US$95,000 in connection to a critical cartoon, according to news reports. Earlier this year, the daily had to publish an apology for several consecutive days in relation to another cartoon, according to CPJ research.