A vendor waits for customers while selling newspapers on his motorcycle, one week after an earthquake in Pedernales, Ecuador. A local journalist says years of self-censorship among the press led to 'timid' early reports of the disaster. (AP/Rodrigo Abd)
A vendor waits for customers while selling newspapers on his motorcycle, one week after an earthquake in Pedernales, Ecuador. A local journalist says years of self-censorship among the press led to 'timid' early reports of the disaster. (AP/Rodrigo Abd)

Correa’s legacy leaves a long road to recovery for Ecuador’s journalists

Since taking office in May, Ecuadoran President Lenín Moreno has pledged to end a decade-long battle between the government and the media. But several reporters and editors with whom CPJ spoke said that the anti-press campaign carried out by Moreno’s predecessor, former President Rafael Correa, has caused lasting damage to journalism in Ecuador.

The left-wing Correa, who was first sworn-in as president in 2007, sued news outlets and journalists for defamation. On live TV he tore up newspapers and denounced independent reporters as corrupt hacks and shills for the political opposition. He also signed one of the most restrictive communications laws in the hemisphere, which led to widespread self-censorship, CPJ has found.

“We had an authoritarian populist government for the past 10 years and that has caused immense damage,” César Ricaurte, director of Fundamedios, a Quito-based freedom of speech organization, told CPJ. “We now have a whole generation of journalists who think it’s OK for the government to tell them how to do their jobs.”

Picking up the pieces from Correa’s assault on press freedom “is like recovering from major trauma,” added Arturo Torres, an editor and columnist at the Quito daily El Comercio. The challenge now, he said, is for journalists “to stop feeling afraid of the government.”

Among developments that had a chilling effect on newsrooms was a flood of defamation lawsuits during Correa’s decade in office. The most high-profile case involved Correa’s victory in a US$40 million defamation lawsuit against a columnist and the owners of the Guayaquil-based daily El Universo. The verdict threatened to bankrupt El Universo until Correa decided to “pardon” the newspaper in 2012.

But there have been other, less visible legal battles.

Torres, for example, was twice sued after publishing a 2008 book about clandestine meetings between Correa administration officials and Marxist guerrillas in neighboring Colombia. Both defamation lawsuits collapsed but Torres said that his US$7,000 in legal costs ate up nearly all of his book royalties. Since then, Torres said, he has put aside book projects about drug traffickers and money-laundering by police officers to avoid future lawsuits.

Christian Zurita, a reporter for the investigative news website Mil Hojas, said that Correa changed the way that many journalists approach their jobs and fomented what he described as “knee-jerk reaction” self-censorship.

The low point, Zurita said, came after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck near Ecuador’s Pacific coast last year. Despite immediate evidence of widespread death and destruction, Zurita said that many reporters referred only to “tremors” in their initial dispatches and refused to label the catastrophe as an “earthquake” until two hours later, when confirmation finally came from the government. Zurita chalked up the timid coverage to a combination of the media’s gut-reaction to self-censor, and many journalists fearing action from the government if they spread what could be deemed false news.

“It seems like journalists have a self-censorship chip implanted in their brains. They think the only way to cover a story is to go to a press conference to get the official version of events,” Zurita said. “It is going to take a long time to recover from this.”

The anti-press crusade under Correa has also affected journalists’ families.

Fernando Villavicencio, director of the news website Focus Ecuador, spent months on the lam before seeking asylum in Peru last year to avoid an arrest warrant for what he claims are trumped-up criminal charges. An Ecuadoran judge issued the arrest warrant in November last year on charges of distributing allegedly confidential emails by public officials, the journalist’s lawyer told CPJ at the time.

Villavicencio returned to Ecuador in September, after Moreno was elected, and appeared at a news conference to denounce alleged corruption during the Correa administration. But his arrest warrant remained active so Villavicencio went underground, moving from safe house to safe house in Ecuador, his wife, Verónica Sarauz, said. In an interview at her Quito apartment in mid-September, which at the time was surrounded by police cars in case Villavicencio showed up, Sarauz told CPJ that she had developed heart problems due to the stress and that her husband was also suffering.

“Fernando cannot continue like this,” she said. “He’s done nothing wrong. His only crime has been to tell the truth.”

Villavicencio reappeared in Quito on October 18 and, in lieu of arrest, agreed to wear an electronic ankle bracelet while his legal case proceeds, according to reports.

Another journalist recovering from the Correa era is Zurita, whom Correa successfully sued in 2011 over a book that the journalist co-authored about alleged nepotism in his administration. The president in 2012 pardoned the journalist. Zurita told CPJ that he had expected similar media brow-beating under the new administration because Moreno served as Correa’s vice president. Zurita said that Moreno’s narrow election victory in a May run-off sent him into a deep depression.

“I stopped writing for two months. I didn’t do anything. I felt totally exhausted,” Zurita told CPJ. “I was going to follow Villavicencio’s example and go to Peru. I had purchased plane tickets for my whole family.”

But in a surprise move, Moreno has broken with his former boss and is reaching out to sectors once vilified by Correa, including opposition politicians and the media. Zurita is heartened by these developments and said his travel plans are now on hold.

Ricaurte, of Fundamedios, said that during the Correa years the balance of power shifted from privately owned to state-run media. Facing government harassment and economic turmoil, several independent newspapers and magazines closed. The Correa administration even threatened to dissolve Fundamedios, claiming that the organization was an organ of the political opposition. Correa eventually backed down amid an international outcry, Ricaurte told CPJ.

“We were getting ready to clean out our desks,” he added.

At the same time, Correa expanded state media holdings by opening new radio stations, taking over two financially troubled privately owned TV stations as well as two independent newspapers, CPJ’s 2011 report, “Confrontation, Repression in Correa’s Ecuador” found. Prior to Correa’s presidency, privately owned media accounted for about 70 percent of journalism jobs in Ecuador while state media employed about 30 percent. Now, by Ricaurte’s estimate, that ratio has been reversed.

The Correa administration turned public media into propaganda organs, causing them to lose credibility and much of their audience, said Andrés Michelena, a close aide to Moreno who is now general manager of Ecuador’s public media. In an interview with CPJ, Michelena pointed to plunging circulation at El Telégrafo, Ecuador’s oldest newspaper, which was acquired by the government in 2008. As the editorial line shifted from independent to pro-Correa he said, daily sales plunged from 50,000 copies to about 10,000 copies.

Fernando Larenas, who was appointed editor of El Telégrafo in July, told CPJ that he is trying to reverse that damage by reviving the daily and turning it back into a more traditional newspaper with balanced coverage that will appeal to a broader readership. But, he admitted, after years of the paper essentially producing government propaganda, it will be a tough job.