09.11.15

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Continuing Assault on Freedom of Expression in Ecuador

I want to call the Senate’s attention to a situation I have spoken about previously, which is the ongoing crackdown by the Correa government on what little remains of the independent media in Ecuador. 

One of the things we have come to expect is that the press – and civil society organizations that expose corruption and challenge the officially sanctioned version of reality – are the first casualties in countries whose leaders are determined to remain in power at any cost.

Ecuador is a prime example.  In 2013, President Rafael Correa issued a decree granting the government broad powers to intervene in the operations of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including dissolving groups on the vague grounds that they have “compromise[d] public peace” or have engaged in activities that were not listed when they registered with the government.  A modified version of the decree, which maintains broad powers to close down NGOs, was adopted in August 2015.

On September 7th, Ecuador’s Communications Ministry opened an administrative process to “dissolve” Fundamedios, an organization that monitors freedom of expression in the country.  According to information publicly available, the government contends that Fundamedios engaged in political activities by publishing information critical of the government – information that would be protected speech in any democracy.  

Every politician knows that unfavorable press attention comes with the territory.  Here in the United States we accept it as a necessary reality of a free press.  But the Correa government wants to punish an organization for publishing news and opinions it doesn’t like.  Silencing the press, like dismantling an independent judiciary, are hallmarks of dictatorship.  History is replete with examples.

Fundamedios, like other independent media and human rights defenders in Ecuador, has been a target of the Correa government for years.  Its members have been subjected to a pattern of harassment and persecution for nothing more than engaging in activities that are protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

As long as President Correa is in power it seems that the press and civil society organizations in Ecuador will be under assault.  But while any president or prime minister with the backing of the police and the armed forces can wreak havoc on the institutions of democracy, history also provides any number of examples where, in the end, the public’s demand for freedom of expression and government accountability prevailed.  We are seeing that today in Guatemala, and I have little doubt that the tide will similarly turn against repression in Ecuador.

Ecuador is a country blessed with wonderful people including unique indigenous cultures, with spectacular geography and extraordinary biological diversity, as found in the Galapagos Islands, and with magnificent colonial architecture.  It is also a country with a history of military coups and fragile democratic institutions.  It is regrettable that as President Correa solidifies his grip on power by silencing his critics, the country is taking on more and more of the characteristics of a police state. 

Fundamedios has a few days to defend itself before the Communications Ministry until a final ruling is issued.  Let us hope that wisdom will prevail, that the forces of repression in Ecuador will withdraw, that the right of free expression will be reaffirmed, and that Fundamedios will be allowed to continue to operate.  There is still time. 

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