It’s by far the dullest space in the newspaper: Every day in El Universo, Ecuador’s leading daily, readers can find eight small photos and news blurbs summing up the activities of the eight presidential candidates. The articles are the same size and blocked together in a layout that resembles a tic-tac-toe game, minus the ninth square. This drab coverage is one result of reforms to the electoral law that took effect in February 2012, which prohibit biased reporting on electoral campaigns and allows candidates to sue reporters and news outlets who allegedly violate the law. To avoid lawsuits, El Universo’s editors have set aside an inside page of the newspaper devoting equal space to everyone from the frontrunner–President Rafael Correa, who is seeking a third term–to fringe candidates. That may sound like fair and balanced reporting, but it’s also shallow. Journalists and press analysts told CPJ that the electoral law has made it far more difficult to pursue aggressive, investigative reporting ahead of the February 17 presidential and legislative elections.
“The media have been covering electoral events without providing much analysis, debate, or discussion,” César Ricaurte, director of the Quito-based press freedom group Fundamedios, told CPJ. “It’s very different from the press coverage of past elections.”
A recent Fundamedios survey of the country’s top 10 newspapers during the first three weeks of January 2013 found that 93 percent of their election stories were short, descriptive articles with very little analysis or opinion. The report stated that “many reporters and editorial writers have opted for self-censorship.”
They would appear to have good reason for caution. Last year, the newsmagazine Vistazo was fined $80,000 for expressing an opinion about a national referendum. The magazine’s May 6, 2011, editorial urged voters to reject parts of a May 7 ballot that included measures giving the government greater control over media content and ownership. An Ecuadoran court ruled that the editorial constituted political propaganda and violated a provision of the electoral law that prohibits “disseminating political or electoral propaganda” in the days leading up to an election.