On the night of Wednesday, 28 January, the Twitter account of popular satirical Facebook group Crudo Ecuador was suspended. At a stroke, President Rafael Correa proved beyond doubt that censorship rules in his so-called Citizens’ Revolutionary Government.
For many, myself included, the mysterious disappearance of the account was hardly a surprise. Just a few days previously, Correa had threatened to unmask Crudo Ecuador’s anonymous curator, whose targets include politicians of all stripes, as well as everyday topics.
Under the hashtag #YoCerréACrudo (#IClosedCrudo) members of the government and its sympathizers soon expressed their support for the page’s closure. Nevertheless, critics of government censorship weren’t far behind. A mass movement of supporters of the page soon hijacked the hashtag to voice their anger.
Failing to See the Funny Side
Despite Crudo Ecuador‘s apparently trivial content — memes, satire, and humor of varying quality — the identity of its creator and the content of its posts have become the topic of national discussion in recent weeks.
Correa has used his two latest national broadcasts of a three-hour show called Citizen Link to denigrate the page. Correa claimed it’s part of a “systematic smear campaign” against his administration funded by the extreme right, the work of hypocrites and criminals.
— Fernando Alvarado Espinel (@FAlvaradoE) January 29, 2015
“Twitter suspended @CrudoEcuador. They’re right to punish vulgarity and disrespect. Act with decency!”
Not content with this, Correa has declared open war on any online expression of dissent. For every “libellous” tweet published, the president has promised that the “coward” responsible will receive 10,000 tweets supporting his government. His administration has created the Somos + (We Are More) page, whereby subscribers can receive notifications whenever the latest “smear campaign” begins, and respond in kind.
Nor is engaging in an online war of words enough. Correa has also vowed that the “scoundrels” who “hide behind anonymity” to criticize his government will be placed under surveillance and their identities exposed “to see if they are so brave” when exposed to reprisals.
Although Crudo Ecuador’s account was restored several hours later, the case raises several points, both amusing and serious.
On one hand, Correa seems yet to realize that thanks to him Crudo Ecuador has more support than ever. In fact, its Twitter account has already exceeded 32,000 followers, and its Facebook page has more than 360,000 “likes.” The site has thanked the president for his efforts with a meme naming him its best publicist.
Yet the ironies and hypocrisies involved are more serious than this. In the aftermath of the killings in Paris that left 17 dead, including cartoonists at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Correa’s Secretary of Communication Fernando Alvarado tweeted an image bearing the legend #JeSuisCharlie in solidarity with the victims. Correa himself even attended a tribute held at Quito’s Alliance Française.
Nevertheless, a few days later, Correa reversed position, taking to Twitter to dismiss the idea of freedom of expression as an absolute right as “nonsense.” Correa then used his Citizen Link broadcast to claim that if France’s communication regulations mirrored those of Ecuador, which “regulate excesses,” the shootings wouldn’t have happened — suggesting that the cartoonists themselves were principally to blame for their own murder.
— Gabriela Franco (@G_FrancoG) January 29, 2015
“The shameful #JeSuisCharlie shooting was only two weeks ago. Such double standards!”
Certainly not everyone would be bold enough to make such a claim. Yet Correa has practice: he’s routinely closed newspapers, threatened the press and delivers weekly insults on national television towards anyone who dares disagree. His much-vaunted model of Buen Vivir (Good Living) for the Ecuadorian people would appear to have no place for freedom of expression.
Yet Correa fails to understand freedom of expression, even if it weren’t guaranteed in our Constitution, is without limits. He fails to understand that openly disagreeing with government policies without fear of reprisal is an essential part of democracy.
Neither does he seem to understand that its natural for people to express pleasure or disapproval with their rulers, nor that censorship and persecution of dissidence are an abuse of power.
As George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, “Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” So here’s a message to the president, to try and get through to him where a thousand tweets and memes have failed.
Freedom of speech is not nonsense, nor it a trick dreamed up by the far right. Freedom of speech is a right that you, I, and Crudo Ecuador enjoy. And the more your administration tries to stifle it, the more the online ridicule will increase.
My advice to the president: I’d steer clear of Twitter and focus on your job. If you try and punish every meme poking fun at you, you’ll soon go mad.
Translated by David Singhiser. Edited by Laurie Blair.