In Ecuador, a Social Media Workaround

Oppressed journalists are having their say online

For three years, Ecuadorean journalist Lindon Sanmartín Rodriguez and his brother Pablo hosted a freewheeling talk radio show that analyzed the economy, wrestled with religious issues, and criticized the government of President Rafael Correa. They called it Digálo con Libertad, meaning Say it with Freedom.

But in late 2010, the Sanmartín brothers were suddenly no longer allowed to say much of anything with freedom. Radio Satélital, the privately owned radio station they worked for in their hometown of Loja, canceled their show without explanation—another apparent victim of the anti-press policies of President Rafael Correa.

Those victims are many, and in many cases the president has successfully repressed them into silence or self-censorship. For a few months, the Sanmartín brothers chose the latter option, staying on the air to do morning news reports at Radio Satélital. But the station’s managers told them to avoid saying anything negative about “friends” of the station—like the local governor, the assemblyman, or the director of a hospital who had been investigated for corruption. As restrictions tightened, the brothers felt they could no longer do their jobs effectively. So last March, they both quit.

“I would not be pressured to change my journalistic criteria and praise corruption,” Lindon Sanmartín wrote in an e-mail interview. “I’d prefer to stay home.”

Staying home does not mean staying silent, though. While he and his brother have been working to get airtime from another radio station, Lindon Sanmartín has been making use of social media. He and his brother can now be heard via an online radio station and read on his blog and his active Twitter feed, where he provides his Loja audience with aggregated international headlines, national and regional news, and opinion articles. The blog is headlined by his name, along with the tagline, “official site for information from the province of Loja, Ecuador, and the world.”

Hundreds of Ecuadorean journalists like Sanmartín are using social media to inform citizens, express their opinions, and encourage open dialogue at a time when the government is desperately trying to silence them. “Ecuadorean journalists have been using social media, like Twitter and Facebook, in an active way,” said Paúl Mena, an Ecuadorean journalist and coordinator of the Ecuadorean Journalists’ Forum, who follows a list of 219 Ecuadorean journalists’ Twitter accounts.

Although President Correa’s attempts to curb traditional media have gained international attention and criticism, the government has not moved to stop the online conversation, even when it is highly critical of national or local government officials. In fact, one of the main topics for journalists using social media is the government’s attempt to control traditional press.

There is plenty to write about. According to a special report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), since Correa took office, he has built a network of more than 15 state-owned media outlets, which use government funding to compete against the country’s private media. He has brought to court—and won—several defamation cases. A January 11 Washington Post opinion article called Correa’s attempts to quash press freedom “the most comprehensive and ruthless assault on free media underway in the Western hemisphere.”

Most widely covered was his case against the daily newspaper El Universo (see Storify), which he charged with defamation for an opinion article written by columnist Emilio Palacio. Palacio and the newspaper’s three owners were found guilty, with repercussions of three years in prison and $40 million in fines, and their sentence was upheld by Ecuador’s highest court.

Although President Correa pardoned El Universo on February 27, he did not convince the world that his assault on the media would stop. A March 16 Forbes article wrote that Correa’s pardon didn’t change what he had accomplished through the El Universo case. “He sent a clear message to the press and everyone else that he controls the courts, and can use them as a weapon whenever and however he wants, including to punish and chill free speech by his critics.”

And there is more. Correa’s latest effort to stifle the media is contained in a new elections law, passed in January, which prohibits the publication of any information about an election for 48 hours before the polls open. The law also makes it illegal to “directly or indirectly” promote a candidate for 90 days leading up to an election.

Carlos Lauría, senior Americas program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said the broadly worded law essentially outlaws even a profile of a candidate in the three months prior to voting. “This deprives citizens of their right to stay informed on election news,” Lauria wrote in an article on CPJ’s website.

But the new law—like those already on the books—may not be used by Correa to target journalists who publish only on social media. According to Sebastían Donoso, an intellectual property lawyer based in Quito, Ecuadorean criminal law—which Correa has used in defamation cases against journalists—dates back to 1938, decades before the birth of social media. While the failure to mention social media in Ecuadorean law doesn’t necessarily prevent Correa from applying it to work published on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, Donoso said he doesn’t think the government will start going after everyone who criticizes the government online, for this reason: Unlike with other media forms, journalists aren’t the only people who use social media to express their opinions. Regulating online commentary, then, would mean going after many more than just journalists.

“I think it’s tough for the government to try to hinder people from saying what they want to in social media,” said Donoso. “I don’t think that the government is going to go after everybody. They cannot do that. They’re smarter than that.” Instead, he said, President Correa wants to make an example out of a few big cases, as he did with El Universo.

That means that journalists can continue to take advantage of this loophole. Mena said many of Ecuadorean journalists use social media not only to report the news, but also to express opinions that might have gotten them in trouble had they appeared in an opinion article in a newspaper.

“On Twitter, people write things that could be considered by the government an accusation or defamation,” he said.

One such example is Janeth Hinostroza, a reporter for private broadcast company Teleamazonas. Both CPJ and El Comercio, a daily newspaper based in Quito, have written about Hinostroza, President Correa’s nasty remarks about her, and his attempts to discredit her journalism. CPJ reported that Correa has questioned Hinostroza’s intellect, and ordered Teleamazonas to preempt her program with a government official who doubted her ethics on the air. Despite this, Hinostroza criticizes Correa over and over again in via Twitter; in fact, between February 2 and March 20, Hinostroza mentioned Correa in 57 tweets, nearly all of them critical. Her tweets about Correa have included comments like, “the problem with ‘Rafael’ is he thinks everyone who thinks differently than him is ‘bad;’” “Correa wanted to teach the press a lesson…not of ethics…but of power…now we know how far he’ll go;” “Correa can’t teach the press a lesson by teaching Ecuador that they can violate laws and rights and get away with it;” and “Correa has ordered me to shut up hahaha the problem is that I don’t listen.”

Correa’s attempts to silence traditional media has actually ramped up online debate; through social media, journalists have been able to engage citizens in open dialogue about the state of press freedom in Ecuador. On February 15, El Universo posted on its Facebook page that the sentence against their editors was upheld unanimously. Within 30 minutes, 240 comments had flooded in. Some defended the president, and some were bitter commentaries, complaining that Ecuador looked increasingly like Cuba or Venezuela, or that Correa’s media assaults were a source of international shame. “[H]e is corrupt and it’s an embarrassment to be Ecuadorean,” wrote one.

Donoso observed that social media has begun to take the place of organized protests. “Right now you don’t’ have many people in the streets, but you have thousands of people chatting on Facebook and exchanging ideas,” he said.

However, according to the International Telecommunications Union, only 29 percent of Ecuadoreans used the Internet in 2010, so even the discussion that does exist online is not available to most of the population.

And those enjoying their freedom of expression on social media worry that these outlets will be Correa’s next targets. Mena said he thinks the government is already monitoring journalists’ tweets and comments online. He explained that the state-run media has already used quotes from journalists’ twitter accounts in its reports, signaling that the government is following what journalists are writing. In November 2011, a citizen was detained for threatening Correa on Twitter, also signaling that the government is closely following the Twitter world. Pablo Villacís, director of Ecuadorean news website Ciudadanía Informada, said that he believes journalists are already self-censoring their comments on social media for fear of being monitored. “People are more careful about expressing themselves on the Internet, and it creates an atmosphere of fear in society,” he said. “It’s difficult to measure how much each journalist is trying to leave aside certain subjects that could be investigated.”

Villacís also cited a proposed communications law, now under discussion in the national assembly, which would give the government more control over the media. The proposed law would create a communications council appointed by the president and other institutions, the majority of which are under the president’s influence. The council would be authorized to impose sanctions on journalists who violate the stipulations of the 45-page law. Even though a draft posted on Ecuador’s national assembly website includes a line that reads, “this law does not regulate information or opinion that circulates on social networks,” it remains to be seen whether the government will adhere to that. After all, Donoso compared Correa’s use of Ecuadorean law against the media to an octopus. “It will try to stretch itself all over the place.”

But as Internet access expands in Ecuador, perhaps social media will remain one small opportunity for the country’s journalists to make their voices heard. “Don’t forget, in difficult times, journalists discover ways for society to express itself somehow,” said Villacís.

He wrote that on Skype.

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Emily Judem will graduate this spring from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Tags: , , , , ,