Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa generated little actual news during a two-day trip to Chile last month. So Ecuador's four main newspapers did the obvious: They published short wire service dispatches about his visit.
Correa was not satisfied. In a televised speech he accused the newspapers of violating the human rights of Ecuadorans by failing to provide them with important information about his trip to Santiago, where he met with Chile's president and received an honorary university degree. A few years ago editors might have shrugged it off as just another one of Correa's rants against the media. But that was then.
Today, the four newspapers stand accused of violating Ecuador's year-old Communications Law. Article 18 of the law states that the media must provide coverage of events of public interest. It also states that the deliberate omission of such news constitutes prior censorship, which is outlawed. If found guilty, the newspapers--El Comercio, El Universo, Hoy and La Hora--could be forced to pay thousands of dollars in fines.
The complaint against the four newspapers was one of about 100 filed against Ecuadoran media under the Communications Law since it went into effect on June 25, 2013. These have led to about 30 sanctions, including fines approaching US$100,000, and many decisions are still pending, according to the Quito-based press freedom group Fundamedios. The overall impact of the law has been chilling for journalists trying to do in-depth reporting, according to many analysts consulted by CPJ during a recent trip to Quito.
"Our worst fears about the law are coming true," said César Ricaurte, the director of Fundamedios.
One journalist, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak for his newspaper, said his paper has cut back its coverage of government officials and institutions--from about five pages per day to two--to avoid getting into trouble. César Montúfar, a sociologist who has written a book about the Communications Law, told CPJ that it has turned editors into censors because they now spend much of their time gutting stories for potentially controversial information.
Even before the Communications Law was passed, Ecuadoran journalists were under siege. President Correa successfully sued El Universo as well as two investigative reporters who wrote a critical book about his brother. During his Saturday TV broadcasts, which must be carried by all TV stations, Correa regularly berates the press as corrupt and calls journalists "ink assassins."
The official pressure has also led to a slump in advertising at some media outlets because companies don't want to be associated with news organizations that closely scrutinize government actions, Ricaurte said. Other legal measures have discouraged in-depth reporting, such as reforms to the country's electoral law that prohibit biased reporting and allow candidates to sue news outlets that allegedly violate the law.
But it's the Communications Law that now functions as Ecuador's official straitjacket on the press. It mandates a state watchdog, called the Superintendency of Information and Communications, or Supercom, to monitor media content. The law is filled with ambiguous language demanding that journalists provide accurate and balanced information or face civil or criminal penalties. A recent report in El Comercio said the Supercom produces three reports per day on media coverage compiled by scores of employees charged with monitoring the press.
Occasional in-depth reports still appear in El Universo and the online magazine Plan V. But since the law was passed, many independent news organizations have shied away from critical coverage of the government. The law has "fulfilled its objective of silencing the media," wrote veteran journalist Janet Hinostroza in a recent column in Hoy. "The pages of some newspapers look more like those of magazines that specialize in personal and celebrity news while TV has focused on entertainment."
By contrast, government supporters laud the new legislation. Rosana Alvarado, a former journalist who is now vice president of the National Assembly and a member of the ruling Alianza Pais party, told CPJ that the law promotes "responsible journalism."
Virgilio Hernández, another Alianza Pais legislator, said the law has democratized the media by mandating more coverage of indigenous and other minority groups and by requiring that TV stations provide subtitles or sign language to help deaf viewers. In addition, Hernández said the law was needed to rein in the independent media, which he claims act more like opposition political forces.
"Let's not fool ourselves," Hernández, who voted for the law, told CPJ. "This is not a press freedom issue. It is an ideological dispute because most of the media play the role of the opposition. They were absolutely arrogant. But now they have to follow the rules."
But with the Supercom headed by a Correa loyalist, pro-government media are, apparently, not held to the same standards. For example, the Communications Law allows for a "right to response" to counter inaccurate or false information. But when Fundamedios and other entities have criticized one-sided reporting by the government-owned El Telégrafo newspaper, their complaints to the Supercom have been ignored.
Martha Roldós, a politician critical of Correa, filed a complaint against El Telégrafo after the newspaper in January published her private e-mails in which she was attempting to secure financing in the United States for an independent media project. Her complaint of "media lynching"--one of the more bizarre violations covered by the Communications law--was thrown out by the Supercom.
"The government media can do whatever they want," Roldós told CPJ.
Montúfar, a professor of international studies at Simón Bolívar Andean University in Quito, points to other problems in the way the law is applied. For example, the law states that the head of the Supercom must act after receiving official complaints. But Montúfar said the agency has often proceeded against the press unilaterally.
Thus far, the sanction that has garnered the most attention was the penalty levied against El Universo for publishing an editorial cartoon. In what may have been the first case of its kind, cartoonist Xavier Bonilla--known by his pen name Bonil--was ordered to "correct" his drawing, which depicted a government raid in which agents confiscated the computers and documents of an Ecuadoran journalist.
Montúfar said the Bonil decision set an especially dangerous precedent. It went beyond the realm of the Communications Law, he said, by sanctioning El Universo and the cartoonist for publishing an editorial opinion that the government claimed was not backed up by the facts. While news stories should be backed up by facts, Montúfar said, the same rigor cannot be demanded of opinion published in editorials, columns, or cartoons.
"I might not have specific facts to back up my opinion," Montúfar said, "but the person who reads the opinion can decide for himself. That is how opinion is supposed to function."