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Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Ecuador Steps Up Campaign against Media

IPI Reiterates Call for Dialogue Between Government and Private Press 

By: Scott Griffen, IPI Associate

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa speaks at the Government Palace in Quito, Ecuador, 27 February 2012, to announce he is granting pardon El Universo newspaper, its executives and the former opinion page editor, who were sentenced for libel. Correa had won convictions and 42 million US dollars fine in a court rulling that provoked adverse international reactions. EPA/Jose Jacome

VIENNA, June 12, 2012 – Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa over the weekend announced he was “seriously considering” directing government ministers to only grant interviews to public media, the latest incident in the leftist administration’s clampdown on critical press.

“Why do we have to give interviews … to Televisa, to Teleamazonas, to El Universo if they are private businesses?” Correa asked, according to EFE news agency, referring to three media companies critical of his populist agenda. He continued: “Aren’t we simply helping to fill the pockets of the six families that dominate the media at a national level?”

Correa suggested that his comments were not intended to be an attack on the press, but rather on media outlets operating only for profit. The president added that he would be “delighted” to grant interviews to privately run newspapers “once [they] provide information without filling their pockets”.

The socialist leader’s remarks, made in his weekly televised address, came just two weeks after he called for a citizen boycott against non-state media, whom he accuses of plotting against him as part of what he has called a “media dictatorship”.

He said: “As citizens, we have to react, to begin a campaign on Twitter, on the phone, through messages, in the streets so that [people] stop buying the corrupt press, which will hopefully cease being profitable, and buy instead El Telégrafo [a government-run paper],” Correa declared in a speech to a group of workers in southern Quito on May 29.

In a visual demonstration of his aim to dismantle the private press, the president then proceeded to shred a copy of the newspaper La Hora while proclaiming “Let them complain as much as they want, wherever they want!”, Reuters reported.

International Press Institute (IPI) Deputy Director Anthony Mills, who led an IPI mission to Ecuador in May, said: “The financial interests of the media are a recurring theme in the barrage of verbal attacks directed at the private press in Ecuador. Notwithstanding the space for general discussion about the relative merits of private and public media, a free and diverse press, including private newspapers and broadcasters, is an essential pillar of any healthy democracy. If the private press ceased to exist in Ecuador, the flow of information would, I fear, become somewhat monotonous, and the Ecuadorean people would be confronted with a fairly one-sided vision of the world.”

Mills noted that in meetings with senior Ecuadorean officials, including the vice-president and the national communication secretary, IPI stressed the need for dialogue between the administration and media leaders.

IPI also expressed concern about the recent closures of several regional radio and television stations in Ecuador. On May 24, police and agents of the Telecommunications Superintendance (SUPERTEL) forced the closure of Lidervisión television and Radio Líder in the northeastern province of Napo. According to the Andean Foundation for Media Observation and Study (Fundamedios), the station’s owner believes the government’s action, which also resulted in the seizure of equipment, resulted from the station’s criticism of local authorities.

One day earlier, on May 23, SUPERTEL agents, accompanied by a reported 50 policemen, also shut down public television broadcaster Telesangay in Morona Santiago and seized the station’s equipment. According to Fundamedios, Ecuador’s National Telecommunications Council ordered the termination of Telesangay’s broadcasting contract in August 2011 for “lack of compliance in the installation.” However, station officials, speaking to Fundamedios, said the decision to close Telesangay had “political undertones”.

Mills said: “These closures appear to reflect the Ecuadorean government’s increasing intolerance of criticism. We urge the government to consider the effect of these closures on democracy, as citizens in rural areas are most vulnerable to blockades of the free flow of information.”

IPI’s visit to Ecuador came after a series of high-profile defamation cases this year, including one in which the El Universo newspaper had been ordered to pay $40 million dollars in damages to President Correa and its three editors and a former columnist sentenced to three years in prison each. In a second case, two journalists, Christián Zurita and Juan Carlos Calderón, were convicted on the basis of their 2010 book Big Brother of causing “moral harm” to the president and ordered to compensate the latter with $1 million each.