By Olga Imbaquingo
Throughout its history, free speech in Ecuador has been under constant threat by the government. After the country’s democratic life resumed in 1979, León Febres Cordero soon became one of the presidents who most abused his power to intimidate the media. Since then, there has not been a lack of heads of state who have done the same—among them Sixto Durán Ballén, Gustavo Noboa, Abdalá Bucaram, and Lucio Gutiérrez. Such leaders had been intent on closing down radio and television networks, while accusing the journalists of corruption, or encouraging the public to burn copies of newspapers. An example of the press war between the presidential palace and the media dates back to November 2003 when then President Lucio Gutiérrez accused El Comercio of being “satirical”. In retaliation, his followers then publicly burned hundreds of copies of that newspaper. On a similar note, in April 2005, after returning to Ecuador after his exile in Panama, the ex-president Abdalá Bucaram said, “I have come to Ecuador to mend this press responsible for misinforming the public, a press that opens its trap every time [the] oligarchy feeds it.”
With the explosive rise to power of the current President Rafael Correa, the relationship between the media and the government has all but self-destructed. The President considers the private media and its journalists as “corrupt,” “mediocre,” “liars,” and “ink assassins.” In the absence of formidable political adversaries, Correa has transformed the private media into his most lethal rivals. At the same time, the media does not possess the necessary sophistication to deal with an opponent as unpredictable and talented as Correa, and therefore have proceeded to repeatedly fall into Correa’s trap, assuming the frontline role of the implacable opposition. From the beginning of the Correa administration, it was evident that the President had a low tolerance for the media. For the President, “this is a corrupt press that does not know the truth… If we say white, they will say black, only to wear down the Government…” The media then returns the blow, criticizing everything that smells of the Correísta ideology. With the passage of time, this contempt and lack of mutual trust has ballooned to such an extent that it has ignited international warnings about the perilous state of free speech in Ecuador.
Some journalists, such as Carlos Vera, Jorge Ortiz, Carlos Jijón, and José Hernández, were forced to resign supposedly under pressure from the government and one, Emilio Palacio, former editor of the opinion page in the newspaper, El Universo, sought self-exile in Miami on August 23. The latter maintained that his life as well as his freedom of speech were in danger after the court ruled in favor of the lawsuit initiated by President Correa. This ruling carried a three-year jail sentence with it against the directors of El Universo— Carlos, César, and Nicolás Pérez—as well as for Palacio. The ruling also required that the newspaper pay USD 40 million to the President for the “slander” and “injuries” to the dignity of the head of state.
The embattled columnist, who incidentally is the half-brother of former President Alfredo Palacio, upon arriving in Miami, issued an open letter in which he declared that he feared for his safety from what he calls “the dictatorship”. From his new vantage point, Palacio has launched a barrage of accusations against Correa, centering on his being “a monster without ethics. Correa appears to be good with his university titles, but from the beginning he has been a tyrant like… Idi Amin.” The confrontation between the two adversaries became so polarized that Palacio, during a conversation with COHA, explained that he would not acknowledge that the Correa government is doing anything positive. The regime is one of “assassins, thieves and inept people and from this, nothing good can result. Is there anyone who says that what Idi Amin did was good? Correa of course cannot be an African dictator, but he sure has the personality.”
Palacio’s immoderate rant against the Quito government unleashed the government’s wrath and motivated the President to file a lawsuit against El Universo as well as Palacio for making his charges public on February 6, 2011. The article was published in El Universo under the title “No to Lies”. In it, he referred to the events of September 30, 2010 when an alleged coup attempt in Ecuador was staged. Palacio wrote a piece in which he refers to Correa in unflattering language on a number of occasions. He calls Correa “the dictator” and moreover, accuses him of “ordering fire without discretion or previous warning on a hospital full of civilians and innocent people. It cannot be forgotten that crimes against humanity do not just disappear.”
The subsequent exchange of insults between the President and Palacio is what brought relations between them to their most intense animosity, which first began in 2005 when Correa was appointed economic minister, but became much more evident in May 2007. At that later time, from the moment the two met, it was a hostile confrontation for both, devoid of any respect or intellectual temper. Finally, Palacio had to be removed from the presidential office. Since then, Correa has made a point to attack a widening circle of the private media, with special attention dedicated to Palacio, launching insults that at times border on surprising vulgarity. In an interview with COHA, Palacio commented that in Ecuador “there is no tolerance. For Correa the solution is to put all journalists who criticize him behind bars. He insists that he is doing right by using jail time as a threat to journalists who commit an error or insult him in front of the cameras. This is what Correa does.”
The court has just sentenced three directors of El Universo to three years in prison, but it has not yet ruled on the fate of Palacio, as the case is still under review. In his COHA interview, Palacio commented that the President considers the decision regarding El Universo to be fair because his “dignity” and “honesty were offended.” The Pérez brothers have reportedly been offered amnesty if the newspaper agrees to give Correa a public apology, though this is something to which the directors have no intention of succumbing. Palacio will not apologize either and insists that the September 30 coup was a “preconceived plan and an [attempted] assassination. Correa is responsible for the death of six or seven people and for that he must be imprisoned.”
Whatever the outcome of this crippling verbal and judicial showdown may be, Ecuador’s image has undeniably been tarnished because of it. The day after El Universo’s controversial sentence was revealed (July 21, 2011), all of the country’s independent newspapers publicly condemned the persecution that Ecuador’s private media have been facing. The very conservative Washington Post editorialist on Latin American themes has echoed this disapproval in a piece published on the precarious situation in Ecuador and the status of free speech, in which he observed, “Correa is seeking to destroy or silence the remaining independent media, which to his distress have taken on topics such as the hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts awarded to his brother.” The Correa administration also funds a grid of public communication networks that produce reports that invariably support his point of view. As reported by the Reagan-era National Endowment for Democracy, “the government controlled one radio station when Mr. Correa became president in 2007, but it now owns five television channels, four radio stations, two newspapers and four magazines.”
The self-exiled Palacio’s influence as a top-rated force in the opposition has soared due to recent highly visible public disagreements with Correa, which have added to the large volume of criticism emanating from national and international bodies that advocate free speech. For the Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, “The criminal conviction of the [P]resident’s critics is a major setback for free speech in Ecuador.” The organization adds that “punishing a journalist and directors of a newspaper for ‘offending’ the [P]resident is likely to have a very negative impact on the news media and public debate in Ecuador.” But what Human Rights Watch’s Americas division does not do is perform a single bit of research into whether Correa’s case against Palacio has any merit to it. Once again, as we have seen in Venezuela, the Americas division (easily the most constructive regional section of the organization), has acted too much as a partisan and too little as a judge.
It may not matter from which group the accusations originate; what is at stake here is the defense of freedom of speech and the latent risk of self-censorship by Ecuadorian journalists who are fearful of being accused of libel if they publish unsavory things about Correa’s administration or the administration that might succeed him. In the words of Professor Hernán Reyes of the Universidad Andina, this unrest “has been thrust into a process of dual demonization. The government has wrongly demonized the media and journalists since the start of his new presidential term. It is therefore curious that the media response has been the same.” As long as Correa is president, any discussion of this issue seems pointless and invariably is expected to lead to a dead end. The situation can be likened to a war in which there is no victor, but instead only two losers. Even if Correa may be technically correct, it could be argued that he has proven to be unwise and off-balanced in terms of the soundness of his judgment.
At its 67th General Assembly held in Lima, Peru, the Inter American Press Association (SIP-IAPA) expressed its grave concern over the state of free speech in Ecuador. This is not the first time that the country has been seen as a place where government and free press were at odds and where there have been attempts to stifle the right to dissent. In Ecuador, the chances of reaching a resolution through open dialogue between two opposing sides have been greatly diminished, and what the nation is left with are journalists and private news outlets poised against a demonstrably intolerant government that does not take criticism well. However, the press also has its instigators who accuse news agencies of publishing biased analyses of reports released by the government. According to former communications professor Alberto Maldonado, “another one of SIP-IAPA’s resources is to deny or not publish information that paints the ‘enemy’ in a positive light…or to question everything favorable that is said about it. For some time now (about four years), the official press list associated with the SIP-IAPA has denied Correa [a front page story] unless it in some way vilifies him.” Interestingly enough, SIP-IAPA has been almost inert when it comes to the murder of almost twenty Honduran journalists who happen to be anti-establishment newspaper people.
There is little doubt that the status of a free press in Ecuador remains precarious, as in recent years it has had both high points (i.e. during the tenures of former Presidents Jaime Roldós, Rodrigo Borja, and Alfredo Palacio) and low points, such as what is occurring today. With a leader as charismatic, complex, and volatile as Correa in power, it is becoming increasingly clear that the automatic right to press freedom, not only for journalists, but for all Ecuadorians, is a thing of value that must constantly be sought after. Correa has assured the public that his administration holds freedom of speech in the highest regard, a pledge that can be legitimately challenged. His government has seen the inception of yet another wave of restrictions of free speech that has rendered reporters fearful of undertaking investigative journalism. On the other hand, it is also a patent myth to say that freedom of the press has existed without restrictions for all of Ecuador’s history and that Correa is the first president to trample on this right. The country has a lot of work to be done with regard to this issue, with the argument far from being on the anti-Correa side.
It could be said that President Correa may have seriously erred in his handling of his dispute with El Universo, its directors, and Palacio. But silencing the press, either by letter or spirit, is not the way to go about gaining the support and respect of journalists. Despite any flaws, the local press has helped maintain the fragile balance of Ecuadorian democracy. The present situation must take into account a president that on the outside is celebrated around the world for his academic achievements and intellectual muscularity. Nevertheless, the demand that he has made for reparations for slander and libel against him somewhat distorts the image of an ethical, morally sound figure that any leader would aspire to respect and uphold. Furthermore, in seeking USD 40 million to restore his dignity, Correa only demonstrates that his intentions may be purely self-serving. The President has effectively shot himself in the foot with this action, and Ecuador seriously has lost out as a result.
Olga Imbaquingo is a COHA Research Associate
References for this article can be found here.