One result of President Rafael Correa’s high-profile campaign to demonize the country’s private media can be seen on the desk of José Velásquez, news manager at Teleamazonas, a private Quito television station often critical of the government. Among the documents piled high on his desk are lawsuits, which used to be a rare thing. Encouraged by Correa who has personally sued newspapers and journalists, Velásquez says, the subjects of Teleamazonas news reports are now filing between two and five lawsuits per month against the station. “Because the president is so aggressive with journalists, it empowers a lot of people,” Velásquez says. “Correa says we are incompetent and corrupt. So, now the average Joe in the street says: ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, you are corrupt so I am going to sue you too.’”
Critics say that in the absence of a strong political opposition, Correa, who is heavily favored to win another four-year term in the February 17 election, has turned the Ecuadoran press into his whipping boy. In speeches, Correa vilifies the news media as “liars” out to sabotage his “citizen’s revolution.” Along with the lawsuits filed by the president, his government has enacted laws that suppress political speech. Government ministers refuse to speak to critical private media. Regulators have shut community radio stations that did not support the administration. And some reporters have been subjected to a seemingly organized barrage of insults via Twitter.
All of this appears to have emboldened some members of the public to confront the media in a variety of ways, from legal harassment to physical attacks, Cesar Recaurte, director of the Ecuadorian press freedom group Fundamedios, told CPJ. In 2012, Fundamedios documented 173 acts of aggression against Ecuadorian journalists, up from just 22 in 2008. These acts included the first killing since 2005 of an Ecuadoran reporter for reasons related to his work, as well as 13 assaults and 15 threats.
“This is the consequence of political polarization: It makes people see the world in black and white, and that’s why the risks for journalists are on the rise,” Ricaurte said. “Correa is very popular and if you are a fan of the president you are expected to hate the press.”
Indeed, the streets of Quito are full of press critics. When asked about Correa’s attitude toward the media, taxi driver Mario Cualchi, told CPJ he agreed with the president. “I’ve known for years that the media rarely tells the truth,” he said.
Juan Carlos Calderón, the editor of the weekly Vanguardia newsmagazine and one of the journalists who was sued by the president, said that some of his pro-government relatives now give him a hard time about his critical reporting on the Correa administration.
Another magazine editor, who did not want to be identified, said that the criticism comes from both sides. People who support the president ask why the media is so corrupt, the editor said, while opponents accuse reporters of backing down amid the government’s campaign against the press.