On May 24, 2017, in his inauguration speech, the newly elected president of Ecuador Lenín Moreno said, “There can’t be dialogue without freedom of expression”. Though these are powerful words for freedom of press they are in strong contrast to Moreno’s previous stance on the liberties of journalists, as he had previously served as former President Rafael Correa’s vice president.
Correa’s relationship with the press was a complex one. He took steps to silence critics of his administration, and as his control of media grew he did not did not hesitate to publically attack both independent media outlets and individual journalists. Correa passed a constitutional referendum that guaranteed the public the right to receive “truthful, verified” information (as determined by the government) and introduced the idea of media and news as a government-supplied public service. This made it subject to regulation and gave the government the ability to determine what constitutes issues of public interest and therefore what could be published.
In 2013 Correa further solidified his anti-press stance by passing the Organic Communications Law. Under the law, “censorship by omission”, or not publishing what is mandated by the government, was illegal, and required publications to run government-approved “corrections” to controversial articles. The law also gave broad powers to the state’s ‘media watchdog’, allowing them to control and penalize media outlets. This law has been used as justification for hundreds of lawsuits and fines against journalists, frequently resulting in the loss of a journalist’s job. Law enforcement has staged raids on editorial offices, publications have been shut down when articles or political cartoons are not ‘rectified’, and at least one reporter was forced to leave the country. Journalists who resisted the government’s instruction were driven from their jobs. Since the law was instituted, there have been more than 900 lawsuits against media organizations, more than half of them directly by the government.
As recently as April 2017, four newspapers and three television programs were fined for not running a story promoted by the government. “The communication law has allowed the government to strongly influence the media. Editorial decisions are no longer being made by journalists, but by teams of lawyers,” César Ricaurte, the executive director of press watchdog Fundamedios, said. “The worst effect is that the traditional media has stopped investigating corruption because they can be punished.” Public confidence in the media is minimal, and local officials regularly infringed on the civil liberties of reporters.
Since his election Moreno has worked hard to improve the government’s relations with the press and has shown respect for the people’s rights. He has curbed the media regulators and encouraged investigative journalism, something rarely permitted under Correa. Moreno also pardoned a number of activists who had been criminally charged for protesting peacefully. The Moreno government claims it cannot legally repeal the Organic Communications Law because Ecuador’s Constitution requires that the country have an active communications law at all times, but Moreno has pledged to work on reforming the Communications Law.
Despite the steps taken forward by Moreno, the results of Correa’s harsh regulation and enforcement will be apparent in the country for years. Ecuador’s long history of intimidation and persecution of the media resulted in widespread self-censorship, and journalists are still harassed over remaining defamation laws. Until the Communications Law is repealed and the most restrictive articles rescinded as Moreno has promised to do, it is unlikely that journalists in Ecuador will be able to effectively perform their jobs.