Free Speech Crackdown, Ecuador Edition

The U.N. has condemned Ecuador's shutdown of a media watchdog group amid concerns the government is increasingly threatening freedom of speech.

Opponents demonstrate against the government of Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa with a sign reading "Right of resistance" in Quito on September 16, 2015. AFP PHOTO / RODRIGO BUENDIA        (Photo credit should read RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Opponents demonstrate against the government of Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa with a sign reading "Right of resistance" in Quito on September 16, 2015. AFP PHOTO / RODRIGO BUENDIA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images)

The United Nations and leading human rights groups routinely bash Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt for cracking down on the press and stifling free expression. Add a new strongman to the list: Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, whose administration has waged an increasingly aggressive campaign against both the media and the free speech rights of ordinary citizens.

Ecuador’s most recent target? Quito-based Fundamedios, a group founded in 2007 to support journalists and safeguard freedom of expression and association, according to the organization’s website. The group collects statistics and issues reports on threats to journalists and media organizations. They also hold trainings, workshops, and events to educate the public about press freedom and the law.

But Correa’s government, which has broad power to regulate NGOs, is shutting them down over accusations that the organization deviated from its stated mission and broke laws that prevent NGOs from participating in partisan politics by republishing political blog posts. Fundamedios is attempting to fight the closure.

In a letter to the group’s executive director, César Ricaurte, the office of the secretary of communication wrote that the organization “demonstrates a clear intention to become a political actor that seeks to generate public mistrust regarding issues outside their jurisdiction.”

That sparked fierce criticism from the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which on Thursday issued a joint statement condemning the move.

This is not the first time in recent history that Ecuador has prompted international hand-wringing over its free speech practices.

Carlos Lauría, who coordinates Latin America programs for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Foreign Policy that Ecuador “has one of the worst freedom of speech records in Latin America.” Below, FP compiled a list of five key moments in Correa’s campaign against free speech:

June 25, 2013: Correa’s government passed a sweeping communications law purporting to address the very real problem of media bias in the country. According to Reporters Without Borders, the privately owned press had been “tendentious if not actually oppositional.”

However, the law also included a ban on “media lynching,” a requirement that all news coverage be “verified, balanced, contextualized and opportune” and a “right to correction” for anyone who feels they have been treated unfairly by the press. The vague nature of the law has worked to the government’s benefit: According to Lauría, it has allowed the government to issue more than 100 sanctions against media companies and journalists in the past two years.

December 2013 – January 2014: Government forces searched the home of journalist and activist Fernando Villavicencio. When Ecuadorian daily El Universo published a cartoon depicting the search, the government fined the newspaper 2 percent of sales profits from its fourth quarter, which reportedly amounted to $90,000. Authorities also ordered Xavier Bonilla, the cartoonist, to issue a correction. Bonilla was sanctioned and forced to apologize again in 2015 when he published a cartoon the government labeled discriminatory.

December 2014 – February 2015: Correa began to attack those who criticized him on the Internet and social media during his weekly Saturday addresses to the nation. His main target, Gabriel González, anonymously ran a humor website called Crudo Ecuador that published photo montages and videos making fun of everything from Valentine’s Day to footballers to Correa himselfGonzález was outed on Twitter, followed and photographed, and received an apparent threat against his family in the form of a bouquet of flowers. The anonymous note attached to the bouquet congratulated him on his “beautiful family,” referred to his wife and sons by name, and read: “Believe me, you can count on our interest and attention as long as your bravery lasts.”

Aug. 13, 2015: Franco-Brazilian journalist Manuela Picq was beaten by police and arrested while covering protests against Correa. Picq, who had lived in Ecuador for eight years, was jailed and stripped of her visa. She was charged with violating the terms of her cultural exchange visa, which precluded her from taking part in political protests. Picq maintains that she was not part of the protests, but had gone to observe as a journalist.

Aug. 15, 2015: Correa declared a “state of exception” due to the pending eruption of Cotopaxi, a large volcano near Quito, the country’s capital. Claiming it would defuse citizen panic, Correa also issued a decree of “prior censorship,” which prohibits the sharing of “unauthorized” information about the volcano — whether in public, private, or on social networks. “Citizens will only get information from the official bulletins of the Coordinating Ministry of Security,” the decree reads. This apparently precludes ordinary citizens, or even scientists, from sharing unofficial information about the volcano.

Photo credit: Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images

Megan Alpert is a fellow at Foreign Policy. Her previous bylines have included The Guardian, Guernica Daily, and Earth Island Journal. Twitter: @megan_alpert