Bogotá, Colombia, April 24, 2017--Ecuadoran authorities should immediately annul fines imposed on seven media outlets for declining to reproduce a story published in an Argentine newspaper, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Government regulator The Superintendency of Information and Communication, or Supercom, on April 21 levied fines of US $3,750 each on the newspapers El Comercio, El Universo, La Hora, and Expreso, and on TV broadcasters Teleamazonas, Ecuavisa, and Televicentro, for declining to follow up on a March 15 story in the Argentine daily newspaper Página/12 alleging that defeated opposition presidential candidate Guillermo Lasso evaded taxes, according to media reports.
"My financial holdings are public," Lasso said in remarks published in Página/12 on March 17. "They are in Ecuador, and everyone knows them and knows how I have worked."
In an April 21 press conference, Carlos Ochoa, the head of Supercom, said that the media outlets' decision not to report on Página/12's allegations constituted prior censorship. Ochoa then refused to take reporters' questions, according to press reports.
"No government anywhere, including in Ecuador, has any business telling the news media what to cover," Carlos Lauría, CPJ's senior program coordinator for the Americas, said from New York. "We urge Ecuadoran authorities to annul this decision and allow the media to do their jobs without further official interference."
Lasso on April 2 narrowly lost a runoff vote to ruling-party candidate Lenín Moreno, a close ally of outgoing President Rafael Correa.
With polls showing a tight race between Lasso and Moreno, the Citizen's Observatory for Quality Communications, a pro-government group, on March 27 filed a complaint to Supercom alleging that the seven news outlets' failure to publish Página/12's allegations "affected the voting rights of Ecuadorans, since the possible crimes involved someone who aspired to be president," according to news reports. The group's complaint followed televised remarks by the outgoing president complaining about the media's lack of coverage of the allegations, the reports said.
In defending its actions before Supercom, lawyers for El Comercio argued that the original Página/12 story was poorly reported, failed to include a response from Lasso, and that publishing the unverified allegations would have violated an Ecuadoran law barring media from promoting or denigrating candidates immediately before elections.
Lasso on April 21 wrote on Twitter that the government was now targeting media outlets that did not join its "dirty campaign" against him. "This shows the radicalization of a totalitarian government that wants to destroy the free press," Lasso wrote.
Pedro Valverde, a lawyer for El Universo, told the BBC the newspaper would be "exhausting all administrative and judicial options to annul this absurd sanction."
During an April 21 meeting of the ruling Alianza País party in Quito, President-elect Moreno said he would ask the regulator to annul its ruling.
"I have asked that the matter be considered baseless," he said, according to news reports.