Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy The Assault On Freedom Of Expression In Ecuador

As Submitted To The Congressional Record

Mr. LEAHY.  Mr. President, May 3rd was World Press Freedom Day.  In this country, we recognize freedom of expression as our most cherished right.  It forms the foundation for every other freedom, and an independent press is essential to its exercise.  Yet in many countries expression is often censored and punished.  Journalists are threatened, imprisoned, and killed for exposing official corruption and criticizing government repression.  Not only is the media targeted and silenced, the entire population is denied access to accurate reporting.

The Senate was in recess on May 3rd, but I would like to call other Senators’ attention to troubling events that currently pose one of the gravest threats to freedom of expression in this hemisphere.  I am speaking about the actions of Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa and officials in his government to silence independent broadcasters and publishers and watchdog organizations, undermining the fundamental right of free expression in ways that resemble what we have come to expect in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.   

There is no institution more fundamental to democracy than a free and independent press.  A free press helps protect the rule of law, to ensure that no person or group is above the rules and procedures that govern a democratic society.  A free press helps ensure transparency to prod governments to be honest and accountable to their citizens.  

Unfortunately, recent events in Ecuador suggest a deliberate shift away from these democratic traditions, and this could pose grave consequences for democracy in Ecuador. 

Although wavering at times, Ecuador has a history of democratic government of which its citizens can be proud.  Ecuador’s first constitution, written in 1830, stipulated that “every citizen can express their thoughts and publish them freely through the press.”  Ecuador’s 1998 constitution guarantees the right of journalists and social communicators to “seek, receive, learn, and disseminate” events of general interest, with the goal of “preserving the values of the community.”  Even Ecuador’s latest constitution, ratified just four years ago, protects each citizen’s right “to voice one’s opinion and express one’s thinking freely and in all of its forms and manifestations.”  However, it appears that these protections -- a vital part of Ecuador’s history of democratically elected, representative government -- now only apply at the discretion of President Correa. 

During President Correa’s term in office, the number of state-owned media organizations has exploded – growing from just one government-run news outlet, to a media conglomerate that today is made up of more than a dozen outlets.  He has pursued criminal charges against columnists and newspaper owners, including legal actions aimed at El Universo, one of Ecuador’s most respected newspapers.  In the El Universo case, President Correa won a $42 million award, and several journalists were sentenced to three years in prison following a hearing before a temporary -- and recently appointed -- magistrate.  Although President Correa later pardoned the journalists, an Ecuadoran court rejected his pardon, and their fates remain unresolved.  The fear of being charged and dragged through the expensive legal system also silences many other journalists or compels them to temper criticism of the government.

President Correa and his government are not only targeting journalists.  Some 200 activists, many of them indigenous people protesting environmentally destructive mining projects, have been criminally charged and detained.  The pattern of arresting or threatening to arrest social activists has suppressed the free flow of information in Ecuador, silencing dissenting voices either by legal action or self-censorship.

Perhaps most insidious to the principles of democracy, President Correa’s government has ushered in new reforms that could make illegal almost all reporting about electoral campaigns.  All censorship is bruising to a democracy, but electoral censorship is a fatal blow.  With presidential elections occurring in Ecuador in the next year, there is growing concern that President Correa’s actions represent an attempt to influence the democratic process to his own political and personal benefit.

Dr. Catalina Botero, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the Organization of American States (OAS), has rightly criticized President Correa’s crusade against the press.  In response, President Correa has expanded his campaign of censorship beyond Ecuador’s borders and targeted Dr. Botero’s office, proposing to the OAS earlier this year a plan that would have restricted the ability of Dr. Botero’s office to issue independent reports and cutting off some of its funding.  Although the plan was rejected by the member states of the OAS, President Correa’s intent remains clear.  No longer content to silence his political opponents in Ecuador, he is now targeting his critics elsewhere.  

President Correa has tried to cloak his actions in populist vocabulary, declaring that his censorship is motivated by a desire to free the public from the corrupt interests of the business organizations who often ran newspapers before the establishment of a law forbidding anyone with a significant stake in a media company from owning other businesses.  Challenging viewpoints expressed in the media of course is legitimate, common, and healthy in any society, but preventing those views from being heard is not.

Mr. President, we should denounce attacks on the press in Ecuador and elsewhere in this hemisphere.  We should strongly support Dr. Botero and her office.  Protecting freedom of expression, a fundamental right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, is everyone’s concern and responsibility.  In doing so, we stand with the people of Ecuador and their right to be heard, and for the future of their democracy. 

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