2015 will be remembered as one of the most critical years for the exercise of freedom of expression and in particular for the work of the press. The selective and arbitrary implementation of legislation that is in itself one of the most restrictive of the continent, preemptive censorship via the imposition of content exerted by various authorities by trivializing and abusing the right of reply and rectification (implemented without distinction), dozens of cases of persecution of Twitter users, bloggers and even administrators of Facebook pages, the censorship of online content through the Spanish company Ares Rights, the closure of media outlets and the seizure of equipment, new insults and a stigmatizing discourse that targets specific journalists and outlets, physical attacks, imprisonment and repression against those who exercise the right to protest, self-censorship and the concentration of media via purchase or sale, set up a dismal outlook in the Ecuador of 2015 for one of the essential democratic freedoms.

From January to December, Fundamedios counted 377 attacks, making 2015 the most violent year for free expression, as the attacks increased by 44% compared to the previous year, which closed with 254 attacks. With this new record, the attacks have risen to a total of 1,409 since Fundamedios began monitoring them in 2008.

This situation only confirms a troubling reality: that the increasing deterioration of freedom of expression has gone hand in hand with an increase in attacks that are the product of the implementation of restrictive laws, specifically, the Organic Communication Law, which has as its main victims the media, and as the main offender a State that far from guaranteeing rights, has created a complete structure set in place to violate them. This statement is reflected in figures, as detailed below.

Major attacks of 2015

The main attacks of 2015 occurred within the category: “Processes based on the implementation of regulations contrary to freedom of expression”, with 99 cases, (26%) that translate into accusations against the media before the Superintendency of Information and Communication (Supercom) and sanctions based on the implementation of the Organic Communication Law (LOC). Just like in 2014, the abusive and selective use of this restrictive legal text reflected all of its negative effects with the imposition of constant fines and sanctions that severely affected the economy of large, medium-sized and small media outlets. But most troubling is that a regime of preemptive censorship has been enforced in Ecuador through the imposition of official content, with the obligation to transmit and/or publish replies, rectifications or public apologies.

Second place was taken by attacks recorded as “Abusive use of the power of the State” with 87 cases (23%). Within this category lie the “Abuse of ‘chain broadcasts’ and other communication tools used by the State”, with 55 attacks – which also include requests for replies by State officials who did not appeal to Supercom -; nine cases of “Abuse by State control agencies”, such as the collection of fines through coercive processes; seven cases of “Abusive use of official media when it generates consequences for the exercise of freedom of expression”, and six within the subcategory “Concession and/or arbitrary cancellation of radio and TV frequencies, or digital spectrum”, just to mention the most relevant.

Third place goes to two categories of attacks: the Physical and the Verbal, with 43 cases each, which represent 12% of all aggressions.

Within the verbal attacks, 27 cases of “Insults or disqualifications by authorities and public figures” were reported; nine “threats” and seven “Insults or disqualifications by individuals when they generate consequences for freedom of expression”. This category shows the hostile atmosphere and the stigmatization of the exercise of journalism perpetrated by the highest levels of power, with a President who discredits the press with unkind and well-known epithets in each of his Saturday broadcasts or other public interventions.

As for physical attacks, this year they increased compared to the previous one due to the context of protests experienced within these months and as a result of the repression of social demonstrations. Thus, 25 “Attacks on the physical integrity of journalists and citizens” were reported; 10 cases of “Intimidation / harassment/persecution”, as well as four cases of “Attacks against the headquarters of media outlets”. Within this category we have also included the obstruction of coverage and the destruction or seizure of media equipment outside their headquarters, among others.

Another kind of attack that has increased at an alarming rate is related to the violation of “digital rights” with 40 cases (10%), which include the “Hacking into the computer systems of media outlets and social organizations”; Cyber threats and systematic harassment through social networks and the media; Censorship on the internet involving the arbitrary closure and suspension of social network accounts and the abuse of copyright rules in order to silence, among others.

Finally, and in lesser numbers, 39 cases of “Criminal proceedings” were recorded, many of them involving the arrest of citizens during protests; seven cases of “Censorship”; seven within the category “Legal framework that is contrary to international standards”; four “Administrative processes”;  and three recorded as “Abusive use of non-State power”, to mention the most relevant.

With regard to victims, the media, with 212 attacks, and journalists and media workers with 56 attacks, continue to be the main targets. The increase in attacks against citizens, with 31 cases; NGOs, with 21; 20 against public figures, and 13 against cyber-activists, is cause for concern.

The main offender in all these cases is still the State, which is responsible for 54% of the total number of attacks (198 cases), followed by public officials, responsible for 21% of them (77 cases). Within this subcategory, the main offender is the President of the Republic (with 24 attacks), followed by the security forces of the State (with 23 attacks). There have also been a smaller number of attacks perpetrated by unidentified persons and violent groups with 11% and 8% respectively.

Beyond these figures and the dramatic increase in attacks, some serious events have been evidence of the deterioration of freedoms in Ecuador. Cases such as the closure of Ecotel TV; the possible withdrawal of more than 300 radio and TV frequencies; the dismissal of journalist Martin Pallares from the newspaper El Comercio – for making critical comments against the Government in his personal Twitter account – show the fear and self-censorship that exist within the newsrooms.

But also, the fact that media outlets such as the newspapers La Hora and Expreso have had to give over their front pages and entire interior pages to publish replies, while having to declare resistance to denounce the abuse of the Superintendency of Information and Communication (Supercom) – whose most recent sanction was issued for failing to reply to a paid advert at the request of that same entity, calling into question the real usefulness of the Communication Law and bringing to light the contested independence of this regulatory agency, as it operates as judge and jury, even though its head, Carlos Ochoa, has denied these accusations – show the dangerous imposition of official content and the constant abuse under which free speech had its worst year in 2015.

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