Commissioners: José de Jesús Orozco Henríquez, Dinah Shelton, Catalina Botero (Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression)
Petitioners: Canal Telesangai, Fundacion Andina para la Observacion y Estudio de Medios (Fundamedios), Asociacion Ecuatoriana de Editores de Periodicos (AEDEP), Union Nacional de Periodistas (UNP), Radio Canela
As Ecuador continues to move toward a stronger democracy, journalists have continued to petition the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for better protection against alleged infringements on the freedom of the press in the country. At a March 12, 2013, hearing the Commission heard testimony from petitioners and state representatives who discussed the current situation of the right of freedom of expression in Ecuador. Fundacion Andina para la Observacion y Estudio de Medios (Fundamedios), a non-governmental organization that spoke on behalf of media outlets, expressed concern victimization and prosecution of journalists for their criticism of state officials and the president. Since they last came to IACHR in 2011, the petitioners noted that the situation has worsened within the country, pointing to allegations of restrictions on voting rights and prosecution of journalists who express their opinions. Following public criticisms by government officials, the petitioners said many reporters now fear for their lives because they have become targets of threats and abuse.
One reporter discussed how he was a victim of verbal threats of violence that came from state officials or supporters of the presidential administration. The reporter then expressed the difficulty in receiving information from the President’s cabinet, which reduces the ability of the general population to get pertinent news about their government. Also relevant to dissemination of information, the petitioners described how increased pressure for government officials in response to newspaper opinion pieces has led to a rise of self-censorship for fear of retaliation. The petitioners also noted that in addition to a slow rise in Internet censorship, the government has shut down or censored new-media outlets, including social networks such as Twitter whenever criticisms of the state. President Rafael Correa has publicly humiliated editors and writers from some of the largest newspapers and has called upon supporters to direct criticisms toward these media outlets.
Canal Tele Sangay representative of the television stations, has been one of 34 media outlets closed by the government. The station claims that the closure was carried out without due process or constitutional authority. The petitioner lamented that as the government shuts down media outlets, the ability to disseminate information and for people to voice their opinion is severely limited. An official representative of the radio station Radio Canela spoke on behalf of the radio stations in Ecuador. The Radio Canela official noted that he had been previously prohibited from coming before the IACHR hearing that took place in October of 2010 by Ecuadorian officials and that he, along with his colleagues, were labeled as traitors by Ecuadorian government officials.
The petitioners further argued that the state has not lived up to international standards of protecting free press and freedom of speech. They argued that state officials have also begun to give out unreasonably high penalties to media outlets in order to continue a trend of self-censorship that results in a limited ability to have honest political discourse without fear of repercussions.
The petitioners requested that the IACHR visit Ecuador to interview and have a discourse with civil society institutions. They also requested that the Commission solicit information from the state in respect to pending cases against media outlets and their employees and examine the State’s compliance with international obligations in respect to protecting media rights. Finally, the petitioners ask the Commission to look into the consequences resulting from the filing of the current petition. In 2011, the press was severely criticized for coming before the IACHR by President Correa and the petitioners were discredited as traitors by the government, leading to nearly 500 threats.
The Ecuadorian state representatives responded by assuring the Commission that the state adhere to all the international treaties signed in respect to international law and, as a democratic state, they welcome political discourse. The state considers the cases brought up by the petitioners as isolated incidents, the representatives said, and not reflective of the true media situation in Ecuador, which they assured the Commission is free and in accordance with international standards for freedom of expression. The representatives then showed a video that they said justified and explained all the fines given to news outlets. They also emphasized that the threats and killings of journalists were unrelated to the government and that while 22 outlets were shut down, 1,889 still remain and 254 new ones have developed. The Secretary of Communication further emphasized that new private media outlets have emerged and that the rights of workers and wages have improved because of government initiatives. The state action, the representatives said, indicate that it protects all forms of free speech, but they also noted that derogatory or vulgar insults do not deserve the same protection as those publications with a social purpose.
The Commission thanked the two parties and noted that previous trips to Ecuador have demonstrated a vibrant arena of political debate via the news outlets. Commissioners expressed concerns about whether punishing journalists for using insults and derogatory language were reciprocal to public government officials. The Commission also said it wanted to know if the new-media outlets represent a variety of voices of debate.