His administration’s latest moves towards censorship include launching a criminal investigation against cartoonist Xavier Bonilla, a new website designed to investigate and respond to social-media users that “attack” his government, insulting and defaming independent reporters, and even setting up a tax-funded “troll center” to target critics online.
Despite the government-sponsored backlash against the free press, a few brave voices still dare to speak out against the arbitrariness in Ecuador. One such voice is Fundamedios, an NGO that promotes freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and the right to access public information.
PanAm Post interviewed its director, César Ricaurte, who claims that since Correa took office in January 2007, the president has stigmatized the press and portrayed it as the “enemy.”
For Ricaurte, this attack on independent media climaxed when the Ecuadorian Congress approved, with an overwhelming majority, Correa’s so-called Media Law in June 2013.
“With it, the state created a whole apparatus to control media content,” Ricaurte argued.
The civil-society leader says the press has been under constant attack since these bodies began operating in January 2014. They have issued over 270 complaints for a wide range of reasons: because cartoons are misleading, because headlines are deemed too alarming, or because some photos accompanying stories are too crude.
The Media Law “created a superintendency, in charge of surveilling, controlling, and punishing the media; several commissariat bodies to monitor the media locally, and a regulatory council that dictates policies and carries out studies,” explained Ricaurte.
— FUNDAMEDIOS (@FUNDAMEDIOS) April 1, 2015
Image: Censored, radio station sanctioned over listener’s opinion. Tweet: [state body] .@SuperComEc sanctioned Radio Novedades for allegedly infringing the Media Law.
He claims that Correa himself, on national television, orders which journalists must be punished: “Several of the complaints are initiated at the request of the president during his Saturday television show.” Once the president singles out someone, “the superintendency carries out” the investigation.
From those 270 complaints, Ricaurte says the Ecuadorian government has issued 85 sanctions. “There can be three kinds of sanctions: economic, public apologies or rectifications, and responses the media are forced to publish.”
But for Ricaurte, the punishments and harassment effectively amount to “a regime of prior censorship.”
“While the law says censorship is not allowed, what happens in practical terms is that the government, through the superintendency, can control media content.”
Targeting of Cartoonists
The criminal investigation against cartoonist Xavier Bonilla, also known as “Bonil,” shocked the independent media in March 2015, and Ricaurte believes Bonil’s case is a clear example of prior censorship.
The artist draw a cartoon lampooning Agustín Delgado, an Afro-Ecuadorian congressman, over a speech he gave at the National Assembly — but the state judged the drawing to be racially discriminatory and ordered Bonil and the newspaper to amend it.
“They used Bonil’s usual place on the newspaper to put a public apology,” he said. “Ecuadorian media are punished for what they say, for what they don’t, and for what third parties say. They are held responsible for the opinion of columnists, interviewees … If they say something the superintendency finds uncomfortable, the outlet is sanctioned.”
Furthermore, media in Ecuador are forced to publish information that the state body deems of “public interest,” Ricaurte alleged.
“Three newspapers are being investigated because they didn’t cover on their front pages the Chilean president’s visit for the granting of a honorary doctoral degree,” he added.
Ricaurte also revealed that “Correa has hired at least four public relations, marketing, and publicity agencies in the United States to handle his government’s image” in the legal battle with Chevron over oil spills in the Amazon forest.
“It’s an administration that bases much of its platform on crafting a public image both inside and outside the country,” he concluded.
Translated by Daniel Duarte. Edited by Laurie Blair.