The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, but the government restricted these rights. The government continued to use the communications law to limit the independence of the press.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: Generally, individuals could discuss matters of general public interest publicly or privately without reprisal, although various civil society groups, journalists, and academics argued that the law limited their freedom of expression and restricted independent media. Under the communications law, media outlets are also legally responsible for the opinions of their contributors. Independent of this law, it is illegal to threaten or insult the president or executive branch, and penalties for violators range from six months to two years’ imprisonment or a fine from $16 to $77.
Article 176 of the new criminal code that went into effect August 10 establishes a prison sentence of up to three years for those who “disseminate, practice, or incite any distinction, restriction, or preference on grounds of nationality, ethnicity, place of birth, age, sex, gender identity or sexual orientation, cultural identity, marital status, language, religion, ideology, socioeconomic status, immigration status, disability, or health status with the aim of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment, or exercise of equal rights.” According to some legal experts, the article could restrict freedom of speech.
On March 19, at the request of the Superintendency of Information and Communications (Supercom), the government’s media regulatory agency, public prosecutor Galeano Balcazar opened a preliminary criminal investigation into political cartoonist Xavier “Bonil” Bonilla and the newspaper El Universo concerning an allegedly discriminatory cartoon about Afro-Ecuadorian legislator Agustin Delgado published in August 2014. The charges carried a prison term of one to three years, but on April 7, the Office of the Public Prosecutor closed the case against Bonil and El Universo due to a lack of evidence. In February, Supercom fined El Universo and Bonil and forced them to issue a public apology to the Afro-Ecuadorian community.
Press and Media Freedoms: Freedom House rated the country as “not free” for a third consecutive year. The freedom of expression watchdog group Fundamedios reported that 2015 was the worst year for freedom of expression, and particularly for the press, since it began its monitoring in 2008, with 368 “aggressions” on journalists, a 44 percent increase from 2014. President Correa continued to attack private newspapers and encouraged followers to buy only public newspapers. Regulatory bodies created under the law monitored and disciplined the media through a combination of legal and administrative sanctions.
During a press conference on June 23, Supercom director Carlos Ochoa reported that Supercom sanctioned 198 media outlets for violating the communications law since it went into force in June 2013. Of the cases reviewed by Supercom, 80 percent resulted in penalties. In at least one known case--a sanction against El Universo for a series of insufficient corrections to news stories demanded by the National Secretariat of Communication (Secom)--the fines reached several hundred thousand dollars. According to Fundamedios, Supercom and government officials initiated 54 percent of the cases. Fundamedios also found that 96 percent of cases before Supercom involved private media outlets, 2 percent involved government-owned media outlets, and 2 percent involved institutions.
The independent media remained active and expressed a wide variety of views, including those critical of the government, although many analysts and journalists noted the law had led to self-censorship in private media, pointing to a decrease in investigative reporting.
Provisions in the law limit the ability of the media to provide election coverage during the official campaign period. A constitutional court ruling affirmed the right of the press to conduct interviews and file special reports on candidates and issues during the campaign period, but it left in place restrictions on “direct or indirect” promotion of candidates or specific political views.
The law includes the offense of inciting “financial panic” with a penalty of imprisonment for five to seven years. Some analysts viewed this as a warning to the media in their reporting on the country’s financial problems. Media outlets reported privately that they refrained from some financial reporting due to concern over the possible legal consequences.
The government owned or operated an estimated 20 broadcast stations and one newspaper and used its extensive advertising budget to influence public debate. The law mandates the broadcast of messages and reports by the president and his cabinet free of charge. The government increasingly required media stations to broadcast statements by the president and other leaders, thereby reducing the stations’ private paid programming. Various media outlets also reported pressure from the government to broadcast “voluntary” advertisements or face the risk of losing their broadcast frequencies. According to a report by Fundamedios, indigenous community radio stations stated that they aired the president’s weekly address and that their contracts also required them to send to Secom their daily programming list in advance.
The law calls for the redistribution of broadcast frequencies to create equal shares of media ownership between private media (33 percent), public media (33 percent), and community media (34 percent). Observers claimed this redistribution of frequencies would reduce the private media by almost 50 percent. The government asserted in public statements that information was a public good rather than a right and that the redistribution of frequencies guaranteed a more inclusive and diverse media environment. As of October 2, the government had yet to redistribute frequencies. Press reports indicated that the Agency for Regulation and Control of Telecommunications (ARCOTEL) initiated a process on September 8 to review irregularities in more than 300 radio and television frequencies. On December 19, media reported that ARCOTEL had closed seven media outlets due to expired or invalid frequencies. Media directors stated that the government had either directly or indirectly threatened revocation of their frequencies unless they limited critical coverage of the government.
Violence and Harassment: During public appearances and his mandated weekly television and radio address, President Correa regularly questioned journalists’ competence and professionalism, and accused the private media of bias. He cited individual journalists by name and encouraged both government officials and private individuals to raise complaints against the media. During his August 29 weekly address to the nation, President Correa urged supporters to protest outside the headquarters of “corrupt” media organizations. NGOs, journalists, and international human rights organizations reported increased pressure from authorities due to criminalization of speech and self-censorship that resulted from threats against journalists and sanctions under the communications law.
Fundamedios reported that on July 13 unknown individuals entered the residence of artist and political cartoonist Vilma Vargas, in Chambo. Vargas denounced the intrusion as an act of intimidation, since the intruders ransacked her house but did not take anything.
On July 29, unknown perpetrators left pamphlet bombs outside the offices of the government-owned newspaper El Telegrafo and the private newspaper El Universo in Guayaquil. Neither newspaper reported injuries. The bombs included a note from the “National Liberation Front” that criticized the government. The local prosecutor announced an investigation into a possible act of terrorism. As of December, there were no public announcements of arrests in the case.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists working at private media companies reported instances of indirect censorship and stated that President Correa’s attacks caused them to practice self-censorship.
The law requires the media to “cover and broadcast facts of public interest” and defines the failure to do so as a form of prior censorship. The superintendent of information and communications decides prior censorship cases and can impose fines. Many private media complained that the government could decide what is of “public interest” and thus unduly influence their independent reporting.
On May 13, Supercom fined the newspaper La Hora $3,540 for “prior censorship” for choosing not to cover a press conference in which the mayor of Loja, Bolivar Castillo, presented an accountability report of his administration’s work in 2014. Supercom ruled that La Hora had failed to cover “facts of public interest” as required by the law. La Hora challenged the ruling in court and announced that it would not pay the fine, calling it a “disastrous precedent” that usurped the media’s editorial discretion and allowed public officials to decide what information is of public interest.
On August 15, President Correa declared a “state of emergency” for the entire country and named Coordinating Minister for Security Cesar Navas as the sole official source of information regarding Cotopaxi Volcano, which began to emit large columns of ash, sparking public fears of a large eruption. Correa subsequently issued a presidential decree that prohibited private media from speculating about the volcanic activity. Private media criticized the restrictions on their ability to report on the volcano. During a radio interview on September 14, Navas announced that his ministry would initiate legal action through the Office of the Public Prosecutor against social media users that had published “unscrupulous” comments and rumors related to the volcano. On October 13, Navas announced an end to the 60-day state of emergency.
The law also imposes local content quotas on the media, including a requirement that a minimum of 60 percent of content on television and 50 percent of radio content be produced domestically. Additionally, the law requires that advertising be produced domestically and prohibits any advertising deemed to be sexist, racist, or discriminatory in nature. Furthermore, the Ministry of Public Health must approve all advertising for food or health products.
The government remained the largest single advertiser in the country. Media watchdog organizations argued that the government used advertising contracts to reward or punish media companies.
Private media outlets reported that the government continued to use tax and labor inspections to harass outlets that published reports critical of the government. These investigations forced the outlets to undertake time-consuming and costly legal defenses.
Libel/Slander Laws: The government used libel laws against media companies, journalists, and private individuals. Libel is a criminal offense under the law with penalties of up to three years in prison, plus fines and other damage awards.
The law assigns prior responsibility to media owners, who are liable for opinion pieces or statements by reporters or others, including readers, using their media platforms.
On January 17, authorities released doctor and social activist Carlos Figueroa from prison after he served six months for defamation of the president. On March 23, National Court of Justice judge Luis Enriquez vacated the 12-month prison sentence against former National Assembly member Clever Jimenez and journalist and political activist Fernando Villavicencio and dismissed the arrest warrant against them, since the new criminal code does not include the crime for which they were convicted. Government representatives announced that the government would demand an explanation from the National Court of Justice regarding Enriquez’s ruling. In 2013 Jimenez and Villavicencio received 18-month prison sentences for defamation, while Figueroa received a six-month sentence. In August 2014 Judge Lucy Blasio reduced Jimenez’ and Villavicencio’s sentences from 18 months to one year under the “principle of favorability” in accordance with the new criminal code. Jimenez and Villavicencio reappeared publicly on March 24 after hiding almost a year with the Sarayaku indigenous community in Pastaza Province.
On September 24, Maria Jose Carrion, a legislator affiliated with ruling party Alianza PAIS (AP), announced that she would initiate legal action against Lourdes Tiban, a legislator affiliated with opposition party Pachakutik, for libel. On September 23, Tiban had reported that two women and a man attacked her on the street in Quito. Tiban filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office, and told media that she had previously suffered threats and aggressions from individuals affiliated with the AP, including Carrion. In December the case remained open.
On November 11, a court in Cuenca sentenced Sebastian Cevallos, deputy director of opposition political movement Unidad Popular, to 15 days in prison for a series of tweets he posted in July alleging nepotism on the part of former minister of labor Carlos Marx Carrasco in securing a government post for his niece, Paula Rodas. Rodas initiated a judicial case against Cevallos for libel. Media noted that this was the country’s first reported case of a tweet resulting in a criminal sentence. Cevallos stated that the ruling violated his human rights and freedom of expression and cited it as an example of how the government seeks to criminalize public opinion.
The law includes a prohibition of “media lynching,” described as the “coordinated and repetitive dissemination of information, directly or by third parties through the media, intended to discredit a person or company or reduce its public credibility.” The exact terms of this provision remained vaguely defined but threatened to limit the media’s ability to conduct investigative reporting. The superintendent of information and communication has the authority to determine if a media outlet is guilty of media lynching and to apply administrative sanctions.
On February 13, Supercom sanctioned the private the television network Teleamazonas for “media lynching.” The case involved satirical skits about Luis Chiriboga, president of the Ecuadorian Soccer Federation, in which he was portrayed trying to “buy votes” in order to secure his re-election as the federation’s president. In its defense Teleamazonas argued that any attempt to control the contents of the program would have violated the prohibition on “prior censorship.” Supercom forced the outlet to issue a public apology, although Teleamazonas did not incur any financial penalties.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet, but there were credible reports that the government censored online content and monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. A regulation requires that internet service providers comply with all information requests from the superintendent of telecommunications, allowing access to client addresses and information without a judicial order. The International Telecommunication Union reported that 43 percent of the public used the internet during the year. Freedom House evaluated the internet as partly free.
While individuals and groups could generally engage in the expression of views via the internet, the government increasingly monitored Twitter and other social media accounts for perceived threats or alleged insults against the president and government officials. Some NGOs and media outlets reported cyberattacks by unknown perpetrators that appeared politically motivated, since they occurred during coverage of antigovernment protests and when reporting problems perceived as critical of the government.
During his January 24 weekly national address, President Correa announced the launch of a new website, Somos + (We Are More), to confront what he called a “systematic smear campaign” against his government. He said that those who registered would receive an update anytime someone posted a critique of the president or the government on social media, so that they could respond to the critique. Correa claimed the new website would respond to persons who “abuse the anonymity and freedom that social networks provide.” Correa singled out the Facebook and Twitter accounts operated by Crudo Ecuador for satirical posts, calling on his followers to identify the accounts’ administrator. Following Correa’s comments the Crudo Ecuador administrator received threats from other social media users. On January 26, Minister of Interior Jose Serrano announced an investigation into the threats. As of December the ministry of interior had not announced any results of its investigation.
On January 28, Crudo Ecuador’s Twitter feed was temporarily suspended following a complaint lodged by Ximah, a private public relations company that received public contracts from the government. On February 19, the Crudo Ecuador administrator announced that he would close his Facebook and Twitter accounts, after two individuals left a bouquet of flowers and a threatening note at the door to a family member’s residence where he and his family were staying in the province of Guayas. On February 21, Correa lamented the “excesses” on social media from supporters and critics, but he speculated that the threat against the Crudo Ecuador administrator came from “people who want to damage the government.”
Various local press outlets reported on the government’s relationship with a Spanish antipiracy firm named Ares Rights that targeted internet websites, YouTube, and Twitter accounts critical of President Correa or of his government and forced these sites to take down content based on the Digital Millennium Copyrights Act (DMCA). In what many media analysts considered online censorship, Ares Rights sent DMCA takedown notices on behalf of several government officials, targeting documentaries, tweets, and search results that included images of those officials, alleging copyright infringement. According to a report published on July 29 by the Inter-American Press Association, Ares Rights successfully petitioned for the closure of four Twitter accounts that posted tweets critical of the government. On December 28, Ares Rights asked on behalf of Secom that Amazon take down the Fundamedios website, alleging that the site violated copyright laws by using an image of President Correa in a montage that accompanied one of its alerts. As of December 31,the site remained operational.
The law holds a media outlet responsible for online comments from readers if the outlet has not established mechanisms for commenters to register their personal data (including national identification card) or created a system to delete offensive comments. The law also prohibits the media from using information obtained from social media unless they can verify the author of the information.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
While there were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, academics reported that concerns over the process of awarding government contracts intimidated academics into practicing self-censorship.