The biggest question about Pope Francis’ visit to Ecuador, which may also give us a hint of what he’ll say when he travels to Cuba in September, is whether he will criticize one of the worst violators of freedom of the press in the hemisphere. Unfortunately, there are widespread fears that he won’t.
Ecuador, the first stop of a seven-day South American tour that will also take the Argentine-born pontiff to Bolivia and Paraguay, has been recently described by the InterAmerican Press Association (IAPA) as the country with the most repressive media gag law in the Americas. Freedom House, another advocacy group, describes Ecuador in its 2015 world map of freedom of expression as “not free.”
Under a 2013 law championed by Ecuador’s populist president, Rafael Correa, Ecuador has created a de facto press censorship system, under which independent media are subject to huge monetary fines and are forced to publish government rebuttals if their articles are deemed to be unfair by a newly created government agency in charge of supervising the media.
Under the new media gag law, the government has started at least 270 legal cases against independent media, according Ecuador’s Fundamedios freedom of the press watchdog group. In one case, the daily El Universo was slapped with a $350,000 fine, Fundamedios reported.
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As a result, at least three well-known newspapers — including Hoy, which was the second-largest daily in Quito, the capital — and several radio stations have closed. In addition, Correa routinely intimidates journalists, in one case calling a reporter during a press conference a “fat slob,” and lately — in what has become a standard line for populist demagogues across the region — accusing critical reporters of being coup plotters.
Amid all of this, Correa dominates the airwaves with constant “cadenas,” or nationally broadcast speeches or government propaganda videos. In addition to Correa’s weekly Saturday radio and TV address, the government is airing up to five daily “cadenas,” which often interrupt interviews with opposition leaders, or are used to criticize them.
“The government has used the gag law to virtually monopolize information,” Fundamedios director Cesar Ricaurte told me in a telephone interview. “The number of aggressions against the media is soaring.”
Fundamedios has counted 350 government-related actions against the media in 2014, and 186 so far this year. On June 25, Fundamedios itself became the target of one of these actions, when the government’s Secom media supervision agency charged the group with allegedly carrying out political activities that are “a threat” to society.
Asked whether Francis is likely to denounce Correa’s actions against the press, Ricaurte didn’t sound too optimistic. He told me that Fundamedios and 10 other press freedom advocacy groups sent a letter to Francis asking to be included in the pope’s meeting with civil society groups scheduled for Tuesday, but that so far they haven’t been invited. Correa is controlling most of the Pope’s activities, he said.
“Until this moment, no organization critical of the government has been invited to that meeting with civil society,” Ricaurte told me. “That’s worrisome.”
Correa critics point out that Ecuador’s Roman Catholic Church hierarchy is very close to Correa. This is because despite his radical leftist rhetoric, Correa is one of the few Latin American presidents who opposes even therapeutic abortions, is vehemently against gay marriage, and supports several other conservative social stands.
Other Ecuadoran press freedom advocates say they wonder whether the pope will criticize press censorship, because Francis may share Correa’s claims that the media are irresponsible and should be reined in.
They cite the pope’s reaction after the January terrorist attack against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, when — while the French people flooded the streets in support of freedom of expression, chanting “I am Charlie Hebdo” — Francis criticized the magazine, saying that freedom of speech “has a limit.” Correa immediately posted a tweet backing the pope’s remarks about the French magazine.
My opinion: Francis’ gestures of humbleness at the beginning of his papacy charmed many of us and he has become one of the most popular pontiffs in recent times, especially in Latin America.
Nobody expects him to become a political activist. But if he fails to criticize press censorship during his visit to Ecuador, or if he allows Correa to control his agenda and exclude critical voices from his meeting with civil society groups, it will be a big mistake, and a big disappointment.