Ecuadoran journalists pushed into the political ring

The rise of state media in Ecuador is frightening enough, Jorge Imbaquigno told an audience at El Centro Chicano at Stanford. But what really scares him is the increased assault on journalists through multimillion-dollar lawsuits — by the country’s own president.

But what can journalists do? Imbaquigno, a 2012 Knight Fellow and Managing Editor of Diario Hoy in Quito, Ecuador, offered an answer in his talk, “Get Out of the Ring: In Ecuador, Journalists Forced to Go into the Political Arena.” The talk was sponsored by the El Aguila Newspaper, John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships and El Centro Chicano, which supports Chicano and Latino students at the university.

Imbaquigno detailed how Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s popularly elected, progressive president, has slowly but steadily sought to suppress criticism of his government. In addition to proliferating state-owned media – there are now 25 outlets compared with just one the year he took office – Correa has waged a smear campaign against journalists and journalism, restricted coverage and hammered his power home with targeted libel suits, Imbaquigno said.

“Shameless, hungry dogs, filthy, disgusting, liars:” These are some of the terms Correa has applied to journalists in frequent televised speeches asserting the non-state-owned media is corrupt. His campaign has worked, Imbaquigno lamented. A large portion of the public believes journalists have an agenda that suits their wealthy owners. “People don’t care what the government is doing against the press.”

A new law prohibits campaign coverage leading up to elections. And what does the law consider the campaign period, a student asked. About six months, Imbaquigno said.

But Correa’s most powerful tool has been the defamation lawsuit.

  • In December, the editor of Hoy was sentenced to three months in jail for refusing to reveal the names of the journalists who wrote unsigned articles on alleged corruption by a central bank official — the president’s second cousin.
  • Two journalists were ordered to pay Correa $1 million each in damages for a book alleging his brother had obtained $600 million in state contracts, in violation of Ecuadoran law.
  • Three newspaper executives and a columnist from El Universal, the country’s leading opposition daily, were fined $40 million and sentenced to three years in prison. The columnist has called Correa a “dictator” who gave troops permission to fire on a hospital full of people during a police uprising last September – which Correa denied. The president later pardoned the men, forgave the fine but declared victory over a “media dictatorship.”

What can reporters do in such a situation, Imbaquigno asked. He offered his thoughts.

  • Most importantly, recognize that it is a government strategy to put the press in the “political ring.”
  • Get out of the “ring.” Focus on writing about social issues that impact ordinary people.
  • Don’t inflate political news, which just plays into the propaganda machine.
  • Use social networks to give people more factual and useful news, not personal beliefs and opinion, which hurt credibility.

“It’s very sad, but what else can we do,” he concluded.