Americas

After taking aim at media, Ecuador goes after free-speech organization

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa delivers a speech in Quito, Ecuador, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015. A strike by a broad coalition upset with President Correa virtually paralyzed the capital, provincial cities and stretches of the Panamerican highway. The protesters are indigenous activists, unionists, environmentalists and members of the traditional political opposition.
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa delivers a speech in Quito, Ecuador, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015. A strike by a broad coalition upset with President Correa virtually paralyzed the capital, provincial cities and stretches of the Panamerican highway. The protesters are indigenous activists, unionists, environmentalists and members of the traditional political opposition. AP

Since taking office in 2007, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has waged war on the press — winning multi-million dollar lawsuits, badgering newspapers and threatening journalists on his weekly television show.

There to document and denounce those attempts to muzzle the media was Fundamedios, a free-speech group founded in 2006.

Now it might be Fundamedios’ turn to go silent. Ecuador’s Secretary of Communications, Secom, informed the organization on Tuesday that it is being dissolved for its “indisputably political” messages.

The organization has 10 days to appeal but the writing is on the wall, said Fundamedios Director César Ricaurte.

“They’re keeping up appearances that they’re giving us a chance to defend ourselves,” he said by phone from Quito. “But it’s been clear for a long time that they want to get rid of us.”

The government’s case against Fundamedios rests on its Twitter account that sometimes broadcast links to articles and editorials critical of Correa.

Among the examples in the Secom’s dossier are articles about national protests earlier this year and editorials with titles, such as “how to shed a decade of authoritarianism, state-ism and timidity.”

In its notice, Secom said it believes “Fundamedios has disseminated messages, alerts and essays with indisputable political overtones.” It also said the organization had violated its own charter that limits it to “the areas of social communication and journalism.”

Ricaurte said the organization’s sin was linking to two blogs that cover politics.

“The government doesn’t make the distinction between political proselytizing and political journalism,” he said.

The closure of the organization would violate the government’s obligations to respect and protect the fundamental rights of free speech and freedom of association, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Correa administration wants to punish an organization for tweeting articles with news and opinions it doesn’t like,” Daniel Wilkinson, the Americas managing director for the group, said in a statement. “This is an egregious abuse of power and a clear example of this government’s authoritarian practices.”

Fundamedios started the year before Correa took office as a think-tank that analyzed media content in hopes of improving local journalism. With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development and others, it provided seminars and training. When Correa took office, declaring the media his enemy, Fundamedios began monitoring the administration’s attacks on the press.

The turning point for the organization came in October of 2011 when it went to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to make its case. Shortly before, Correa had filed an $80 million lawsuit against El Universo newspaper for defamation and slander, and a $10 million lawsuit against a pair of authors who wrote a scathing book about him and his brother.

The government sent a delegation of more than 40 people to refute Fundamedio’s claims.

“Because the government didn’t get what it wanted — to discredit and humiliate us, on the contrary it was a failed hearing for them — the very next day the attacks against us began,” Ricaurte said.

In January 2014, the Secom took over supervisory control of the organization. In June, it ordered Fundamedios to quit issuing alerts and threatened to dissolve it. On Monday, they made good on that threat.

“Not content with persecuting, harassing, fining, and verbally abusing critics in the privately owned press, the Ecuadoran government is now threatening to dissolve the leading press freedom organization,” Carlos Lauría, the Americas senior program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement. “We urge Ecuadoran authorities to immediately withdraw this politically motivated procedure and allow Fundamedios to continue its work without any government interference.”

Fundamedios isn’t the first non-profit to fall afoul of the administration. In 2013, Correa issued an executive decree allowing the government to intervene in the operations of nongovernmental organizations and revoke their charters if they threatened “public peace” or engaged in activities outside of their stated-missions.

That law has been used to close environmental groups and others that have adopted an anti-government stance.

Fundamedios’ closure comes at a time when it is, perhaps, most needed. In the first eight months of the year, the organization recorded 274 attacks on freedom of the press — more than all of 2014.

“The work that Fundamedios does is irreplaceable,” Ricaurte said. “There is no other organization that monitors aggression against the press.”

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