Firing of critical newspaper editor raises concern in Ecuador

When the Quito daily El Comercio was sold in December to a Latin America media tycoon known for avoiding editorial conflict, press freedom advocates feared the newspaper would soften its coverage of the Ecuadoran government. Those concerns have now increased with last month’s firing of Martín Pallares, one of El Comercio’s most prominent journalists and a fierce government critic.

Over the past 13 years Pallares worked as a reporter, editor, blogger and columnist for El Comercio, the capital’s most important newspaper which is known for hard-hitting political coverage. As President Rafael Correa, who was first elected in 2006, grew more authoritarian and initiated a crackdown on the private news media, Pallares became increasingly critical of his government in columns and on his Twitter feed, which reaches more than 17,000 followers.

Pallares sometimes clashed on the social network with Correa and his ministers and used insulting language. For his part, Correa singled out Pallares in nationally televised speeches, calling him “sick,” “spoiled,” “immoral,” “cowardly,” and an “ink assassin.”

Pallares’s acid comments on Twitter became an issue at El Comercio even before it was sold for $45 million to Remígio Ángel González, a Mexican millionaire who owns or controls more than 100 radio and TV stations across Latin America. Editor Carlos Mantilla Batlle told CPJ he spoke several times with Pallares about toning down his language, which he said was inappropriate for a journalist of Pallares’ stature and violated the newspaper’s “good behavior” guidelines.

Henry Tobar, a lawyer for El Comercio, said his tweets could make the newspaper more vulnerable to lawsuits. After El Comercio was sold, Mantilla told Pallares that he would have to choose between working at El Comercio and venting his opinions on Twitter.

“We can’t have one Martín Pallares inside the newspaper and another Martín Pallares on the outside,” Mantilla told CPJ. “The rules apply to everyone.”

But Pallares told CPJ that his opinions on Twitter are similar to those he expressed in his weekly column in El Comercio. He also refused to stay quiet about the Correa government’s actions.  

“To do that would be to open the door to a tyranny of silence,” Pallares, a former Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University, said in a telephone interview.

The conflict came to a head last month. Amid signs of a major eruption of the towering Cotopaxi volcano near Quito, Correa on Aug. 15 declared a state of emergency. Rather than including just the area around the volcano, Correa made the declaration nationwide, allowing for government press censorship and the right to open private mail. However, since the announcement was made on the heels of large anti-government demonstrations in Quito and in a flurry of tweets, Pallares suggested that Correa’s true aim was to muzzle dissent.

“How does rescinding the right to privacy for mail help in the case of a volcanic eruption?” he tweeted.

When Pallares reported to work two days later, Mantilla told the journalist to clean out his desk.

Cesar Ricaurte, the director of Quito-based free expression group FUNDAMEDIOS, calls the Twitter controversy a smokescreen.  “It’s clear that Martín was fired for his opinions,” Ricaurte told CPJ. “This move allowed the newspaper to get rid of someone whom the government did not like.”

Ricaurte claimed there are other signs that El Comercio is pulling its punches. Investigations, he says, are often about issues like crime and drug trafficking rather than government misconduct. Pallares told CPJ that El Comercio still publishes critical reports but often follows the lead of other media rather than getting out front on controversial subjects. 

Not true, according to Mantilla. He said he occasionally speaks with González but has never been asked to modify the newspaper’s coverage for political reasons and that if it ever happened he would leave El Comercio.

“We have the same team, the same DNA,” he told CPJ. “If we changed we would lose our readership.”

Mantilla, 50, is part of the family that founded El Comercio in 1906. He has held a variety of editorial and business positions at the newspaper and became editor last year. But he also worked briefly as a consultant for González in the early 2000s and was kept on as editor following the December sale.

Mantilla said the transaction was the result of the Correa administration’s long-running war against on the press, including the 2013 Communications Law. The law subjected news media to regulation by a state watchdog and said they must provide accurate and balanced information or face civil or criminal penalties.

The law has resulted in dozens of fines and sanctions against El Comercio and other independent news media, and the overall impact has been widespread self-censorship, according to CPJ research. These pressures as well as government advertising boycotts have led to the closing of several media outlets, such as the investigative magazine Vanguardia and the daily newspaper Hoy.

To avoid a similar fate, Mantilla said the family put the newspaper up for sale. But finding local buyers is difficult due to a law stipulating that Ecuadorans must divest themselves of their non-media holdings before buying substantial stakes in media companies. The law was approved in 2011 amid Correa’s claims that bankers and other high-rolling financiers owned large stakes in media companies that, in turn, distorted their coverage of his left-wing government.

However, the law does not apply to foreign investors, which opened the door for González. His growing portfolio in Ecuador now includes three TV stations, 11 radio stations, El Comercio and its sister paper, Últimas Noticias. That makes González the second-largest media owner in Ecuador after the state.

But according to media reports, González’s news outlets nearly always tow the government line and are rewarded with state advertising. That’s been the case in Ecuador, where his RTS TV station, the third-most-watched in the country, as well as González’s radio stations rarely criticize Correa, according to the Guayaquil daily El Universo.

González’s Miami-based Albavision holding company did not respond to CPJ’s requests for comment.

In addition, the sale of El Comercio is being closely watched following similar transactions in Venezuela. There, a campaign of government harassment against independent news outlets led to the sale of El Universal newspaper, the Cadena Capriles media group, and the Globovisión TV station. In all these cases, their new owners adopted a more pro-government editorial line, according to CPJ research.

Mantilla insists that’s not going to happen at his newspaper but some media analysts have their doubts.

“What’s indisputable is that El Comercio got rid of a journalist that the powers that be had turned into a target for attacks,” veteran journalist and blogger José Hernández wrote. “It did what Correa’s people badly wanted.”