Investigative journalist Juan Carlos Calderon has received multiple death threats after launching a digital magazine exposing high-level corruption — something rare in the claustrophobic media climate of contemporary Ecuador.
To Calderon, the threats were a backhanded compliment for his inaugural story in Plan V that outlined multi-million-dollar insurance fraud affecting state institutions. He brushed them off until a pair of menacing-looking men showed up at his condo complex looking for his home.
Although physical attacks on journalists are rare in Ecuador, the profession faces increasingly hostility, and international press freedom and human rights groups place the blame squarely on President Rafael Correa.
The third-term president is widely popular for generously spending the OPEC nation’s oil wealth on social programs.
“The president has viewed the press as the enemy from the moment he took office. He considers us his only enemy because there is no political opposition,” said Janet Hinostroza, who resigned as a daily TV news anchor last year after a crescendo of threats peaked with a phone call detailing her young son’s daily movements and threatening to kidnap him.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, regional director for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, said Mr. Correa’s “high level of intolerance for criticism” has led to media regulations and legal judgments against journalists, all of which have intimidated the press into self-censorship and undermined freedom of expression.
The harassment campaign has even crossed international borders. Pro-government protesters assailed Ms. Hinostroza in New York in late November as she accepted a press freedom award at a gala fundraiser for the Committee to Protect Journalists. About 150 pickets stood outside the Waldorf Astoria Hotel chanting and carrying signs branding Ms. Hinostroza a traitor and a liar. Back home, virulent attacks on social media spiked against her.
“Mr. Correa says we conspire against him, but all we’ve done is expose corruption in his government or been critical,” Ms. Hinostroza said over telephone after returning to Ecuador, where she now has a weekly TV news show and writes a column for the newspaper Hoy.
Jorge Imbaquingo, a former newspaper journalist now employed by Universidad de Las Americas in Quito, said Mr. Correa’s efforts to blame “all the country’s ills on journalism” foments open hostility against reporters.
“Sometimes people insult you. They say, ‘Get out of here,’ when you’re trying to cover a news event. Sometimes they spit at you,” Mr. Imbaquingo said.
Mr. Correa’s administration also has squeezed newspapers and broadcasters by withholding advertising and encouraging private businesses to do the same.
A law passed in June further tightened the screws by creating two media regulatory bodies that have been packed with Correa loyalists — the Information Authority and the Communications Regulation Council. These bodies have the power to levy fines on media deemed guilty of slander or discrimination. Those offences haven’t been clearly defined, however, and media personnel fear that the bodies may act arbitrarily to silence critical media into submission.