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Knight Center

JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

On eve of elections in Ecuador, legal fears hold back in-depth coverage



The President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, in a January campaign event in Quito. Courtesy of El Universo.

A few days before the presidential and parliamentarian elections in Ecuador, which will take place on Feb. 17, fears of lawsuits and other legal liabilities are holding back journalistic coverage.

According to a report by non-profit Fundamedios, which analyzed the content of 10 newspapers between Jan. 4 and 20, there have been almost no opinion, context and analysis pieces written during the campaigns season. In contrast, plain informative stories represented more than 90 percent of their content. The main protagonists were not the candidates, but the National Electoral Council, which is mentioned in 43 percent of the stories.

Some journalists and freedom of expression experts believe several news outlets are trying to avoid legal problems under Ecuador's Code of Democracy -- the country's electoral law.

In January 2012, using the Code, President and re-election candidate Rafael Correa succeeded in pushing through the National Assembly new restrictions on the news coverage of the elections. The most controversial one was article 203, which called media outlets to "abstain from promoting directly or indirectly" any candidate through special reports or any other way.

After a lawsuit pushed by several journalism organizations, Ecuador's Constitutional Court declared the article as unconstitutional but sustained the ban on any form of "direct or indirect promotion," without specifically outlining what falls within this definition.

Diego Cornejo, president of the Ecuatorian Association of Newspaper Editors, or AEDEP, told the Knight Center that this lack of clarity regarding what constitutes "indirect promotion" represents an ambiguity in the law that has generated uncertainty among news outlets regarding what stories and topics could turn them into the targets of new lawsuits.

Several journalism organizations, like the Comittee to Protect Journalists, the Inter American Press Association and the International Press Institute, have expressed their concern regarding the restrictions on the press due the ambiguity of the law.

“The term ‘indirect promotion’ as included in Article 203 is highly subjective and leaves the door open for those who want to silence or punish critical media coverage of next month’s election,” said Anthony Mills, IPI's deputy director.

According to the director of Fundamedios, César Ricaurte, the changes in the electoral law have had a visible effect in the coverage of the campaigns.

"There is a certain fear among media outlets and that's why everybody's being so cautious about publishing anything that could be considered 'direct or indirect promotion,'" said Ricaurte, who underscored the cases of Vistazo magazine, which was fined by an editorial they published. As a guide for journalists during the elections, Fundamedios published last January its “Guide for journalistic coverage: Elections 2013.”

Newspaper El Universo, in an attempt to avoid exposing itself to new legal problems, decided to measure "milimetrically" the space they give to each candidate in their print edition, said César Pérez, the newspaper's president. On Feb. 6, the page they reserved for an interview with Correa was published almost empty after the president denied their request. The page only contained a picture of Correa and the letter in which Correa's staff informed the newspaper the president would not give them the interview.

Page from El Universo showing their interview with presidential candidate Norman Wray on Feb. 5.

Page from El Universo reserved for the interview with President Rafael Correa on Feb. 6.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The newspaper began making decisions like these after losing a millionaire lawsuit to Correa in March 2011, receiving a $500 fine a few months ago for publishing a picture that allegedly used minors for political purposes, and being sued by Correa and vice-presidential candidate Jorge Glas for the contents of a recently published political cartoon.

“We're human and of course we feel the intimidation now and then," Pérez said. "To feel the power of the government almost crushes you, it has its effect. But we continue firm in our convictions and we try to make decisions based on the principles of what's right, one day at a time."



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