In Ecuador, political turmoil and a deepening security crisis are putting reporters and press freedom at increasing risk. President Guillermo Lasso, who dissolved the country’s National Assembly in May as it took steps to impeach him, has proved ineffective at stemming the rise in violent crime and journalists are watching uneasily as the party of the most anti-press politician in recent memory, former President Rafael Correa, seeks to increase its power in upcoming August elections. A CPJ special report by Carlos Lauría.
Published June 28, 2023
Two journalists forced to flee due to death threats in a single month; explosive devices mailed to multiple broadcasters; reporters compelled to be accompanied by law enforcement in order to cover violent areas; and entire communities turned into so-called “silent zones,” where the press is intimidated from working. Developments like these portend a grim outlook for press freedom in Ecuador, a country facing a spike in violence against journalists amid a security crisis with no precedent in recent history. The situation is compounded by political turbulence as President Guillermo Lasso, a conservative former banker who took office in 2021, dissolved the National Assembly in May as it moved to impeach him over corruption allegations, which he denied.
Ecuadorian journalists and activists worry that a “perfect storm” is gathering to imperil press freedom in this South American nation. In a recent report, Ecuadorian press freedom group Fundamedios documented 356 attacks on the press in 2022, the highest number since 2018, in an increasingly hostile environment. In the first four months of 2023, the organization reported a total of 96 attacks.
While Lasso took steps to protect the media, additional factors have exacerbated an already volatile situation. The legacy of former President Rafael Correa, who ruled from 2007 to 2017, has caused lasting damage to journalism in Ecuador. The lingering effects of Correa’s anti-press actions, which included filing defamation lawsuits, enacting restrictive measures, and smearing critics, have weakened the media’s ability to report the news, local journalists told CPJ during a recent visit to the capital of Quito. “We are stigmatized, and can’t identify ourselves without being reviled,” said Cristóbal Peñafiel, president of the National Journalists Union. “The press is still a target. Confrontation has been normalized and we are the enemies,” said Francisco Rocha, director of the Ecuadorian Association of Newspaper Publishers (AEDEP).
Correa’s smear campaigns and troll warfare — the former president is still lashing out at his critics on Twitter, according to a recent report by Fundamedios — have had a pile-on effect on private media already financially weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic. A report from the journalist group Fundación Periodistas sin Cadenas (Journalists Without Chains Foundation) showed that from March 2020 to November 2021, the Ministry of Labor listed a total of 22,948 layoffs by companies in the media and communications sector.
Various Ecuadorian newspapers have been forced to close their print editions and several suspended payment to their employees as financial troubles multiplied, Fundamedios reported. The leading Guayaquil-based daily El Universo was among those struggling to survive, laying off 150 employees since the start of the pandemic. “COVID-19 accelerated our digital transformation,” said owner Carlos Pérez Barriga. “The collapse of the business model based on advertising forced us to adapt to this hasty process of change. Today, without a doubt, we have less capacity to cover what’s going on in the city streets.”
Reporting amid a security crisis
According to news site Primicias, criminal violence in Ecuador resulted in the deaths of some 4,603 people in 2022 — an increase of 82.5% over the year prior. The country is a “rising hotspot for organized crime,” said think tank and media organization InSight Crime, citing the country’s “diverse transnational criminal landscape, dominated mainly by Colombian criminal and guerrilla groups as well as Mexican cartels.” Albanian traffickers have also set up a foothold in the country, moving tons of cocaine to Europe.
Various local gangs — including the Choneros and affiliated group the Chone Killers, as well as the Lobos, Tiguerones, and Lagartos — have capitalized on rising crime and violence to expand control over activities including the drug trade and illegal mining. Amid an increasing global demand for drugs, gangs have bolstered dealings with major international criminal networks by working as distributors moving cocaine from neighboring countries through Ecuador’s ports toward Europe and the United States, InSight Crime said.
According to El Universo, Ecuadorian authorities confiscated over 200 tons of drugs in 2022, 90% of which was cocaine. While the amount is a slight decrease from the previous year’s record of 210 tons, it is well above the 128 tons seized in 2020 and the 82 tons seized in 2019, according to InSight Crime.
Arturo Torres, founder and editor of the investigative website Código Vidrio, has covered the evolution of organized crime in the country for more than two decades. “Years of flawed decisions, the lack of understanding about the magnitude of the problem, authorities’ inaction, collusion between criminals and officials, the fact that Ecuador is located between two cocaine-producing countries [Peru and Colombia], and the huge increase in the demand of drugs after the pandemic are all factors that contributed to worsening the problem,” Torres told CPJ in a phone interview.
Torres, who also writes for Primicias, said that journalists have had to take increasing safety precautions when reporting on organized crime. In April, he published a bylined report about an alleged criminal gang leader. The next day a lawyer representing the person named in the article called Torres and urged him to remove the story from the website. Torres refused to do so and alerted the police and other contacts about the call. He did not hear anything further but decided that he would no longer use his byline when publishing information that could put him at risk.
Other journalists on the beat have been less fortunate. In August 2022, Gerardo Delgado Olmedo, who covered crime on a Facebook-based news outlet he founded called Ola Manta TV, was shot to death by two gunmen while he was in his car waiting at a traffic light on the outskirts of the Pacific Coast city of Manta. In April, the killers were sentenced to 34 years and six months in prison while prosecutors continue to investigate to find the mastermind and the motive, according to news reports. Also last year, reporters Mike Cabrera and César Vivanco were killed, and Fernando León disappeared, according to Fundamedios. No one has been arrested for Cabrera and Vivanco’s deaths. (CPJ has been unable to confirm whether the three killings were connected to the journalists’ work, but the deaths inevitably have had a chilling effect on their colleagues.)
Prison violence is another risky beat. Most murders in Ecuador are the result of internal strife among criminal groups competing to control the distribution and export of cocaine, the International Crisis Group said. Often, these rivalries play out behind bars; since 2021, violent clashes have left hundreds of inmates dead, according to news reports.
In March, Karol Noroña, a reporter for the independent Quito-based news website GK, reported on the attempted murder of the warden of the women’s prison in Guayaquil and conducted interviews with inmates on the high rate of homicides inside prisons. On May 24, she met with a source who told her that a drug trafficking gang leader had threatened to kill her over her work. Within 24 hours, Noroña fled Ecuador. “The plan is for her to stay outside the country until her safe return is guaranteed,” Isabela Ponce, GK’s editorial director, told CPJ at the time.
A few weeks later, another journalist, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, fled the country following repeated death threats, according to a statement by Fundación Periodistas sin Cadenas. The threats were brought to the attention of the attorney general’s office, the Interior Ministry, and Lasso’s office several months earlier, the group said. The attorney general’s office told CPJ it has opened investigations into the threats, but they have yielded no results.
The soaring crime rates have had a direct impact on the news business. With journalists self-censoring in fear of physical retribution, entire communities across Ecuador are increasingly left without information on the main issues affecting their daily lives, local journalists and advocates told CPJ.
An investigative report published in May by Fundación Periodistas sin Cadenas claims that the country is facing one of the worst periods in history for press freedom. The foundation describes a situation where “silencing and self-censorship have increased due to escalating widespread violence.” Investigative journalism “is becoming a constant struggle.”
The report examines press conditions in 10 Ecuadorian provinces: Carchi, Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, Esmeraldas, Guayas, Loja, Los Ríos, Manabí, Pichincha, and Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas. The organization found that organized crime and local political forces have imperiled the media in vast parts of Ecuador, taking advantage of its vulnerability, precarious labor conditions, and lack of security.
Women journalists in particular face a disturbing level of violence. “They are victims of various forms of harassment and violence from their sources, managers, or even from civil society itself in the context of social protests,” according to the foundation.
The situation in the northern coastal province of Esmeraldas, on the border with Colombia, is the most obvious example of how attacks against the press can foster a culture of censorship. The 2018 murders of reporter Javier Ortega, photojournalist Paúl Rivas, and driver Efraín Segarra, who worked for El Comercio, after being kidnapped by a dissident group that used to be part of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), sent shockwaves across the Ecuadorian media. In 2021, a Colombian court sentenced two men to nearly 29 years in prison each for their involvement in the killings. The victims’ families have continued to call authorities to identify and punish the mastermind and planners.
“It is a turning point that marked the beginning of this rising wave of attacks against the press,” said Torres. Since then, murder attempts, threats, and intimidation have cowed the media into silence in a region where organized crime groups exert control. “Turning a blind eye” and deciding not to report on criminal activities has been the only option for local journalists to survive in Esmeraldas, an investigation by Fundación Periodistas sin Cadenas showed.
In the current context, sensitive topics related to criminal activities, including drug trafficking and illegal mining — which has now reached isolated spots of the Amazon — go unreported. And those who dare to break the silence face consequences.
Francisco Rodríguez, a Chilean national who lived in Ecuador for more than two decades, is a tour operator, environmental activist, and citizen journalist who commented on environmental damage and government inaction in the gold-rich Napo province on Twitter and in the media. In late January, he survived a shooting attack, and in March he received a series of death threats, he told CPJ from a safe refuge. Rodríguez fled the country in April following advice from local authorities. He said he filed a complaint with the state attorney’s office, but the investigation did not produce any results. Rodríguez said he can no longer live in Ecuador and has returned to Chile.
Large urban areas have also seen recent attacks against the press. In mid-March, letter bombs with USB drives and threatening messages were sent from the central town of Quinsaloma to the TV stations Ecuavisa, Teleamazonas, and TC Television; the radio station EXA FM; and to one independent news commentator, all based in Quito or Guayaquil. One journalist sustained slight injuries after one of the devices exploded.
The government’s response
The Ecuadorian government understands the scale of the problem, and has declared numerous states of emergency since 2021, according to Americas Quarterly. In April, the government took the controversial step of authorizing civilian gun use for personal defense. That month the country also declared organized crime groups as “terrorists,” a designation that grants the military powers to combat gangs without declaring a state of emergency.
In spite of these steps, the government’s response appears to be hampered by political gridlock. Lasso’s decision to trigger a constitutional “muerte cruzada” (crossed death) clause dissolving the National Assembly allows him to rule by decree for up to six months. On August 20, Ecuador is set to hold elections, and, if a runoff is necessary, a new president and National Assembly members will be sworn in at the end of November. Those authorities will serve until May 2025, when Lasso’s term was set to conclude, The Associated Press reported. While Lasso can run in the election, he told The Washington Post that he will support another candidate.
In an interview with CNN en Español, Lasso said his decision to dissolve the National Assembly was aimed at deterring “a macabre plan to take control of state institutions in order to promote impunity and facilitate the return of a former president [Correa] who has been convicted of corruption by the National Court of Justice.”
Correa, who was sentenced to eight years prison in absentia for corruption in 2020, has lived in exile in Belgium, which granted him political asylum, since 2017. (In 2022, Belgium, his wife’s home country, rejected an extradition request.) The former president is still popular in Ecuador, and his Citizen Revolution party was the biggest in the National Assembly before parliament was dissolved, according to Reuters.
While Correa is ineligible to run for president due to his conviction, political analysts and journalists told CPJ that if a Correa ally comes to power, that individual could pave the way for the ex-president’s eventual political return with a pardon. In the meantime, Correa has been encouraged by his party’s big electoral win in the February municipal elections. He told Reuters the party will “rebuild” Ecuador if it succeeds in the upcoming snap elections.
With Ecuador’s future leadership an open question, people in the country are increasingly distrustful of authorities’ ability to cope with crime and violence. A recent Gallup poll showed that the population’s confidence in local law enforcement and their belief in the judiciary are at the lowest level the country has seen in more than 10 years. In 2022, 41% of Ecuadorians expressed confidence in their police force, and even fewer (24%) were confident in the judiciary.
Promises to the press
Shortly after taking office in 2021, Lasso proposed a new law to replace Correa’s most anti-press legislation, the Organic Law of Communication. Known as the “gag law,” it had institutionalized repressive mechanisms, established state regulation of editorial content, and given authorities the power to impose arbitrary sanctions and censor the press. Lasso’s immediate predecessor, Lenín Moreno, had already scrapped some of the worst provisions. After Correa’s allies in the National Assembly inserted restrictions, Lasso vetoed that version of the bill. In November, he finally signed a new version, which limits state interference with media, guarantees freedom of speech on social networks, and outlines protections for reporters at risk.
Local journalists told CPJ that they feel their ability to criticize those in power without being persecuted has changed drastically since Correa left office. They said that they feel that the Lasso government generally respects their work, despite the government’s incensed reaction towards La Posta, a news outlet that posts its journalism only on social media platforms. In early January, La Posta reported on an alleged influence peddling scheme within state-owned companies involving Lasso’s brother-in-law, which led the National Assembly to conduct an inquiry. In a televised address, Lasso lambasted the reporters working for the outlet, calling them “media terrorists.” La Posta said that its reporters were harassed and intimidated. In a statement, Fundamedios condemned the government’s reaction, stating that it “recalls a dark time for freedom of expression.”
In late April, CPJ traveled to Quito to meet with Lasso to discuss the deteriorating press freedom conditions and the impact of the public safety crisis on journalists throughout the country. Lasso was not able to attend the meeting due to illness, but a CPJ delegation met with Sebastián Corral, the government’s secretary of the administration. He agreed that the security crisis impacts the media, calling it the government’s top priority, but argued that it affects all Ecuadorians.
During the meeting, Corral agreed to a series of executive measures to support the work of the press. He said that the government will provide critical funds to an existing mechanism to protect journalists, as well as additional funding to support the attorney general in efforts to protect the press and new initiatives to combat misinformation. Corral also pledged to work with local organizations in speeding up the process to implement the new communications law. CPJ hailed these commitments as a positive step toward improving journalist safety.
CPJ also met with Attorney General Diana Salazar Méndez. Ecuadorian journalists and press freedom advocates have criticized her for what they describe as a lack of timely and rigorous investigations into the numerous attacks against members of the media.
During the meeting at her office overlooking downtown Quito, Salazar described a security crisis “without precedent” and said her office strongly supports the work of the press. Salazar conceded that systems to protect victims and witnesses have limitations and need an infusion of “extraordinary resources” to operate more effectively. When pressed about the lack of successful prosecutions in cases of threats and attacks against the press, she said journalists want immediate answers, but judicial investigations take time. She also said some journalists had not cooperated with investigations into threats against them.
The international response
Despite the gravity of the crisis, there is a lack of international attention on Ecuador. While the Biden administration has insisted that Lasso is one of United States’ staunchest allies, in April several members of the U.S. Congress sent Biden a letter calling on him to “re-evaluate” close relations with the Ecuadorian government and to take a closer look at the corruption allegations surrounding Lasso’s presidency.
“The situation in Ecuador deserves to be debated at the regional level,” said Diego Cazar Baquero, founding member of Fundación Periodistas sin Cadenas and editor of the online publication La Barra Espaciadora.
GK’s Ponce told CPJ that the unprecedented crisis requires journalists and the media to build “support networks to safeguard the lives of journalists” working under threat. Ponce added that the press “must incorporate a culture of safety and become much more aware about what’s going on in this situation.”
“Ecuador has become a key puzzle piece for organized crime and shouldn’t be neglected. Institutions are being destroyed while the Amazon region is at grave risk,” said Cazar. Usually eclipsed by countries with heavier regional political weight, Ecuador and its problems have often been overlooked by the international community. “Our country is not collateral and should be the focus of global attention,” Cazar said.
Ecuadorian journalists and advocates are increasingly uneasy about the mounting problems facing local journalism in a climate of violence, fear, and intimidation that has fostered a culture of self-censorship. On top of that, recent memories of Correa’s damaging legacy are creating even more anxiety as the country waits to see if his party will succeed in the upcoming snap elections.
Journalists in particular are bracing for impact.
The Committee to Protect Journalists makes the following recommendations:
To the Ecuadorian executive branch
- The executive branch should take the necessary steps to swiftly implement the Communications Law, which was signed in November 2022 and would limit state interference while providing vital protections for journalists.
- The office of the president should ensure that it will deliver critical financial resources for the effective functioning of the existing mechanism to protect journalists.
- The executive should fulfill its pledge of providing adequate funding to the attorney general’s office in its efforts to protect the press, primarily through the National System for Protection and Assistance to Victims, Witnesses, and Other Participants in the Criminal Process.
- The government of President Guillermo Lasso should ensure that all Ecuadorian journalists and media outlets are able to report the news without fear of reprisal, particularly in the weeks leading up to the scheduled August 20 general elections.
To Ecuadorian judicial, administrative, and law enforcement authorities
- Ecuador’s law enforcement and judicial authorities should ensure that attacks and threats against the press are fully investigated and those responsible are brought to justice.
- Authorities should guarantee the safe return of journalists who were forced to flee because of death threats.
- Authorities should fully implement the existing protection mechanism to guarantee that at-risk journalists can continue to report with fear of physical retribution.
To the international community
- The grave press freedom crisis affecting Ecuador should be prioritized for discussion and appropriate support by UNESCO, the Organization of American States, and the European Union.
- The international community should publicly support the work of Ecuadorian journalists working under threat.
- The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and its Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression should carry out a fact-finding visit to Ecuador.
- International cooperation and media development efforts should ensure that press freedom groups are well-resourced to confront the serious security crisis.