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Freedom of expression under fire in Ecuador as NGOs present complaints to IACHR

In Ecuador, “even humor is a reason for persecution.” These words came from Ecuadorian cartoonist Xavier ‘Bonil’ Bonilla, during the 'Situation of Freedom of Expression in Ecuador' hearing, held on March 17 before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) during its 154 Period of Sessions in Washington D.C.

Hearing Situation of Freedom of Expression in Ecuador. Photo: IACHR/ Daniel Cima.

‘Bonil,’ together with other civil society organizations such as Fundamedios, the National Union of Journalists, the Center for Human Rights of the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador, and the group Digital Users condemned an increase in hostility against the media and journalists before the IACHR, but also denounced general attacks on freedom of expression in Ecuador.

While it is true that concerns about attacks on freedom of expression in Ecuador aren’t anything new, ‘Bonil’ pointed out that the major threat today is the level of intransigence the country has reached, which he said “would be laughable, were it not for the risks it contains.”

According to statements made during the hearing, it would appear that the government Council of Regulation and Development of Information and Communication (Cordicom) “has semiologists that decipher the intentions of humorists. And when these are missing, President [Rafael] Correa, without needing any semiotic help, believes that a meme page on Facebook wants to destabilize a government.” 

It is for this reason that ‘Bonil’ feels that no longer is this a problem between media, journalists, and the government, but rather a generalized attack on freedom of expression that “fundamentally” affects citizens who are behind the statistics on attacks against freedom of expression.

According to Cesar Ricaurte, who works with Fundamedios, since the last IACHR hearing about the same subject (in March, 2014), attacks and threats against media, journalists, and citizens have increased dramatically: they have jumped 46 percent compared with 2013. In his statement, he said that Fundamedios had recorded 254 attacks against the press during 2014.

“And this trend isn’t stopping," Ricaurte said. "Between January and February of 2015 alone, 46 new attacks against the press were reported.”

The most common kind of attack reported were those related to court decisions and arbitrary administrative decisions, which represented 132 of the total cases. Verbal attacks came in at second place, followed by abuse of state power, and finally censorship, which ranked fourth.

According to Fundamedios, the first type of aggression is generally related to the application of the Organic Communication Law (LOC, its acronym in Spanish), which was approved in 2013. It is a law that, according to Ricaurte, has been marked by the IACHR, the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, and other organizations as one that contradicts international standards on freedom of expression.

From the application of this law, there have been 265 proceedings and 82 sanctions brought against media organizations and journalists. “The media is punished for their headlines, for their ‘sensationalist’ editorial lines, and for not correcting the opinions of their columnists. In addition to sanctioning humor, cartoonists are also punished because their cartoons ‘discriminate’ and comedy programs [are sanctioned] for playing with double entendres.”

These cases are brought by actions through the Office of the Superintendence, but they are also brought by government officials, politicians, former political candidates, and groups close to the government that, according to Ricaurte, are those who "intensely" use the LOC, which he described as a law that “hasn’t worked towards democratizing words or defending the citizen, but rather as an instrument to control opinion and independent information.”

In fact, on this subject Fundamedios pointed out that the concentration of state and private media has worsened over the same period of time. They highlighted the case of Ángel González, who a short time ago bought the El Comercio group, one of the most important in the country. Community has been “marginalized,” they explained, as only 17 frequencies now belong in that sector.

At the same time, the group emphasized that small and private media organizations are the ones that have been most affected by the application of the LOC, specifically through economic fines “that sometimes exceed their assets, risking their very existence.” Since the LOC has been applied, four newspapers have closed, among them the newspaper Hoy, which was the second most important newspaper in Quito.

Another concern that the petitioners highlighted is the constitutional amendment still being discussed by the National Assembly, which could turn communication into a public service. This is something that, according to Ricaurte, several international organizations have cautioned against, given that  “a public service is a service of which the State is in charge.” This “is fine for water, electricity, healthcare and education," he added. "But we’re talking about freedom of expression, not something else.”

The IACHR also heard complaints about President Correa’s campaign to uncover the identities of social media users who have criticized his administration. Mauricio Alarcón, from Fundamedios, mentioned the “Somos Más” project, which is a place where supporters of his administration are invited and allowed to find out the identities of these people.

For Alarcón, this campaign is a risk to anonymous discourse. After the administration publicized the identities of some social media users, he said, they received death threats. He referenced a recent case of an administrator of the satirical Crudo Ecuador account, who had to close the website after receiving threats of this same sort.

The petitioners ended their presentation by asking the IACHR, among others, to create a group that would visit Ecuador and create a report chronicling what was discussed during their presentation.

The state of Ecuador, in similar form to past years, left the chairs intended for their representatives sitting empty. Ecuador has expressed, on several occasions its rejection of the IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship, which have accused Ecuador of acting against the international body and other states.

“I have been advised that the State would not be attending the meeting," Rose-Marie Antoine, president of the IACHR, said at the beginning of the hearing. "Nevertheless, we will proceed and we express our profound regret and disappointment [...] and we hope that in the future they will attend other meetings.” 

The state was also absent from another hearing slated that day, one about 'Human Rights Situation of Leaders and Defenders of the Shuar People in Ecuador.'


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