Less than a month after taking office, Ecuadoran President Lenín Moreno engineered a ceasefire in the decade-long battle between the government and the nation’s independent news media by inviting a group of radio, TV, and newspaper editors to the Carondelet presidential palace in Quito.
At the cordial two-hour meeting in July, Moreno promised a new era of press freedom and urged his guests to embrace their watchdog function by investigating government corruption. He ended by declaring that the meeting would be “the first of many open dialogues with you.”
His conciliatory tone came as a shock. From 2007-13, Moreno served as a publicly loyal vice president to the combative Rafael Correa who stepped down as Ecuador’s president in May.
During his 10 years in office, Correa ripped up newspapers on live TV. He sued news outlets for slander, denounced reporters as corrupt liars, and pre-empted TV and radio broadcasts to transmit government propaganda. He also signed one of the most restrictive communications laws in the hemisphere, which has led to widespread self-censorship, according to CPJ research.
After so much hostility, numerous reporters and editors who spoke with CPJ during a recent trip to Quito said that the new president has ushered in a kind of “Ecuador Spring” for the press.
“It’s like an enormous weight has been removed from our backs,” Juan Carlos Calderón, a founder and editor of the online investigative news website Plan V, told CPJ.
Calderón and other journalists point out that since taking the oath of office on May 24, Moreno has reined in a government watchdog agency charged with sanctioning news organizations. He has shaken up the state-run media that used to serve as mouthpieces for Correa. And, they say, he has promised to rid the communications law of its most egregious articles.
“I thought Moreno was going to be Correa’s puppet,” said Martín Pallares, a founder of the independent news website 4pelagatos, which has been critical of both leaders. “But he could go down in history as the great reformer, as the one who erases Correa’s legacy.”
It’s still early in Moreno’s four-year term. What’s more, his outreach to the press and his denunciations of corruption by former Correa officials have prompted an angry response from ex-president, who has labeled his successor a traitor. In the Ecuadoran congress, the ruling Alianza País party is split between Correa loyalists and lawmakers who back Moreno, which could make it more difficult for the new president to pass laws.
Most Ecuadorans appear to side with Moreno. A September Cedatos-Gallup poll put his job-approval rating at 77 percent.
Moreno’s press spokesman, Alex Mora, did not respond to CPJ’s email seeking comment. In an interview with the BBC on September 22, Moreno called the communications law a “good law,” adding: “Some change may have to be made. In practice, we are demonstrating that it should not necessarily be a punitive, sanctioning, punitive law, but rather a guiding law and that agencies behave accordingly.”
For Pallares the strongest signal that times are changing came during a recent court appearance to defend himself in a defamation lawsuit filed by Correa. The former president sued the journalist over a satirical article by Pallares published in April that described Correa as making excuses for officials in his administration accused of corruption and that portrayed the former president as an apologetic jewel thief.
While he was president, legal experts say that Correa packed Ecuador’s courts with loyalists allowing him to prevail in numerous battles against the media, including a $40 million libel lawsuit against the Guayaquil newspaper El Universo. But on July 2 a Quito judge ruled Pallares not guilty.
“Now that Correa is gone perhaps the judges felt free enough to do the right thing,” Pallares said.
Besides lawsuits, journalists and private news companies were often targeted by the Superintendency of Information and Telecommunications, known as Supercom, the state agency that was created under the 2013 communications law to monitor the media. Under Correa, the Supercom issued about five sanctions per week, according to the Quito-based press freedom group Fundamedios.
For example, the Supercom fined newspapers for failing to print stories that reflected well on Correa or for providing what it considered “unbalanced” coverage. It even ordered an editorial cartoonist to “correct” one of his drawings that had angered Correa.
But under President Moreno, the Supercom has been largely inactive while Ecuadoran judges have voided several of its decisions, César Ricaurte, the director of Fundamedios, told CPJ.
Another change is Moreno’s diminished use of so-called cadenas, government broadcasts that TV and radio stations are obliged to transmit. According to Fundamedios, during his first 100 days in office Moreno pre-empted regular broadcasting for a total of 162 minutes to explain government policies. Correa, by contrast, took over the airwaves for three hours or more every week, Ricaurte said.
Under Correa, the government greatly expanded its media holdings, in part, by confiscating two financially troubled private TV stations as well as El Telégrafo, Ecuador’s oldest daily newspaper. Critics contend that these outlets quickly became government cheerleaders. However, Moreno has put new people in charge with a mission to turn them back into respected newsgathering organizations, according to Andrés Michelena, the newly appointed head of state-run media.
El Telégrafo, for example, is now publishing stories about allegations of corruption against Correa administration officials. So far, the newspaper has gone easy on Moreno but that could change, Michelena told CPJ.
“We are not publishing propaganda,” Michelena said in an interview at his office in Quito. “If we see Lenín Moreno committing errors or getting involved in corruption, we will denounce that. Lenín Moreno has asked us to do so.”
Independent journalists applaud these moves. But they point out that Correa’s restrictive legal framework, including the communications law, remains in place. That means Moreno or a future Ecuadoran president who grows frustrated with critical media coverage could fall back on these laws to crack down on reporters, Pallares told CPJ.
Michelena told CPJ that the Moreno administration supports reforming, but not repealing, the communications law, and that these efforts would probably start early next year.
He said government officials have so far held about 20 meetings with journalists, editors, media owners, and Fundamedios about ways to rewrite the law so that it conforms to international standards on press freedom. That would require deleting the law’s most damaging provisions, such as ambiguous language that demands that journalists provide accurate information or face civil or criminal penalties.
Other changes to the law, Michelena said, could reduce the power of the Supercom, which currently acts as a government press watchdog as well as judge and jury in cases of alleged misdeeds by the media. He told CPJ: “”None of us — not President Moreno, not me, not the news media — wants a kind of Gestapo overseeing the press.”
[Reporting from Quito]