Ecuador: International Pressure Helps Secure Press Freedom Win

8. ECUADOR - EL Universo

El Universo responds to a massive libel case that threatened the future of the paper.

WAN-IFRA has a global mandate to respond to media freedom violations and as a result deploys a range of advocacy measures to advance its work. WAN-IFRA operates globally with members, media freedom organisations, and strategic local, national and international partners to raise awareness and advocate for lasting change. In Ecuador, WAN-IFRA worked closely with independent media partners and civil society organizations to highlight government interference with press freedom both inside and outside of the country.

Amidst a long-running battle with the press, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa lodged a massive libel suit against the leading independent daily El Universo in March 2011. Three of the paper’s top executives and a columnist were faced with three years in jail and a $42 million bill to be paid directly to the president.

The article at the centre of the case was an opinion piece titled “No To Lies” written by columnist and editorial page editor Emilio Palacio. Critical of the president, the column accused Correa of granting the military permission to fire on a hospital packed with people during the 30th September 2010 police revolt.

Correa, who was inside and unable to leave the hospital encircled by protesters, denied giving the order and said the article was an example of how the press was trying to undermine his power.

The news was a major blow to the small Andean republic’s media sector, which had become increasingly critical of his administration after initially supporting him. The president had maintained that there was a media dictatorship in the country, while rights groups said his agenda was intolerable of criticism or dissent.

Yet, this case brought tensions to new heights.

 “I knew from the beginning that the president really wanted to close down the paper,” said Monica Almeida, the bureau chief for El Universo in Quito. “It was really a horrible day, a horrible year.”

Given the severity of the case, El Universo’s executives Carlos, César and Nicolás Pérez reached out to WAN-IFRA for guidance because of its global reputation and access to the world’s media.

“The government in Ecuador spends a lot of money on propaganda and advertising, a lot, it’s really unbelievable, as well as lobbyists in Ecuador, the US and Europe so with WAN–IFRA it was really helpful to make our case heard outside of Ecuador and especially in Europe,” said Almeida.

Before this case, WAN-IFRA had carved out a niche in the region through its strategic engagement on the continent. Earlier, the organization had held the first Media in Danger panel at its América Latina conference in Bogotá, Colombia, where Ecuador was given the podium to discuss its press freedom concerns.

8. ECUADOR president Correa

Ecuador’s President Correa.

The complaint and ensuing charges against the paper were ratified by Ecuador’s judicial system, whose perceived lack of independence from the Executive branch had raised serious concerns.

But, there was strong speculation that individuals close to the president had written the sentence before it was even in the hands of the Judiciary. For example, the court read the 5,000-page file detailing the case and drafted a 156-page sentence all in less than 24 hours.

The four plaintiffs appealed the judgement and Palacio resigned from his job in hopes that it would bolster the paper’s chances of winning the case. President Correa had even appealed the case – he wanted to see the fine doubled to $80 million.

WAN-IFRA launched a nine-month campaign that included letter writing to the government, visits to Quito and Guayaquil to meet with newspaper executives, journalists, NGOs, diplomatic representatives and government officials to study the situation on the ground and report concerns directly back to the authorities.

What followed was an outpouring of international and national coverage – spanning regional newspapers that reprinted Palacio’s article and global media companies including Le Monde, The Guardian, El País and Le Soir covered the issueto raise visibility on the deteriorating situation for the country’s independent press.

WAN-IFRA worked with El Universo to help alert journalists and newspapers worldwide to Correa’s travel agenda so that no matter where the president went, he would be asked about the criminal libel case back home.

The headlines were often bold and exemplified WAN-IFRA’s global reach, as shown with one from Spain’s El Pais: “18,000 newspapers concerned for deterioration of press freedom in Ecuador.”

The mounting pressure and follow-up reports ultimately led Correa to pardon the newspaper and its staff on 27th February 2012. In a televised address, Correa said he was dropping a libel case against two other journalists who had written a book about $600 million in government contracts that had been granted to his brother Fabricio.

After the case was dropped, El Universo said it would not have been possible “to obviate the personal and pecuniary penalties imposed on us by the Ecuadorian National Court of Justice” without WAN-IFRA’s help.

While the torrent of international coverage backed by WAN-IFRA’s fact-finding mission and meetings with officials played an instrumental role, Almeida said Correa would never credit the international pressure as the reason why he backed away.

8. ECUADOR - pressBut with a televised newscast broadcast at prime time in Europe and translated into English and French, Almeida said Correa’s pardon was a clear attempt to halt the extensive criticism he was getting both nationally and internationally.

Correa’s pardon emerged as a win for press freedom. However, the case still lent itself to prolonging a vicious cycle of self-censorship and intimidation.

“Being a journalist has bec  ome a very bureaucratic thing in Ecuador,” said Almeida as she explained the difficulties of finding sources, waiting sometimes weeks for interviews, and navigating a 2013 communications law that stifles investigative reporting.

Ecuador’s media climate is increasingly built on trying to preserve the status quo. Almeida says that if there were ever an economic crisis in Ecuador, no one would know because the media wouldn’t be able to publish it.

“For news that could be considered as provoking panic among the people, the journalist can go to jail for between one to three years,” Almeida said. “It’s very difficult now to print stories.”

 – Alexandra Waldhorn


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