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WAN-IFRA calls for dialogue amidst polarised media scene

(WAN-IFRA/IFEX) - Quito, Ecuador, 3 November 2011 - The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) has concluded a five-day mission to Ecuador, where it found "an increasing polarization and climate of hostility amongst media professionals and amongst society as a whole".

The delegation, composed of the WAN-IFRA CEO, Christoph Riess, and Rodrigo Bonilla, Press Freedom Missions Manager, met with journalists, editors and publishers from public, government and private media, syndicate representatives, local non-governmental organizations, diplomatic representations, the President of the National Assembly, Mr. Fernando Cordero, and the National Secretary of Communications, Mr. Fernando Alvarado.

The visit to assess the media situation in the country came as a follow-up effort after several expressions of concern by WAN-IFRA to the government in the past year, regarding a decline of freedom of expression in the country.

The delegation welcomed the willingness of government officials to hold meetings and exchange points of view. "This opened the door to dialogue, which we consider fundamental, despite the differences of opinion," said Mr Riess.

"We have exchanged our different arguments, we have heard their concerns in an open and sincere way, we have both exposed our views on the situation of freedom of expression in our country," said Fernando Alvarado, after the meeting.

This openness contrasted with the climate of division, polarization and hostility that came out of various meetings, revealing a bitter conflict between private media professionals and the government and media favorable to the government. "This dividing conflict is blinding both parties from the immense challenges faced by Ecuadorian journalism, and is therefore being strongly detrimental for the Ecuadorian society as a whole", said Mr. Riess.

The delegation presented its concerns regarding the press freedom situation in the country, including "the concentration of media outlets under direct or indirect control of the government and the confrontational tone used by the President and the administration against journalists, individuals, critical voices, and private media through public media outlets," said Mr Riess during the mission's press conference in Quito on Tuesday.

The use of criminal defamation and civil defamation lawsuits by high-profile authorities seeking disproportionate damages "send a chilling effect that spreads widely throughout society as a whole, and promotes a growing climate of self-censorship," said Rodrigo Bonilla, during the meeting with Fernando Alvarado.

The organization reiterated its request to President Rafael Correa to withdraw his lawsuits against journalists Juan Carlos Calderón, Christian Zurita and Emilio Palacio, and against the El Universo company and three of its executives.

Calderón and Zurita face a civil lawsuit in which the President asks for US$10 million for pain and suffering caused by the publication of their book, Gran Hermano (Big Brother), which details allegations of official corruption and claims the President was aware of it, which he categorically denies.

Mr. Palacio, the newspaper El Universo and its executives Carlos, César and Nicolás Pérez Lapentti were sentenced in July on defamation charges to three years in prison and ordered to pay US$40 million to the President.

WAN-IFRA also expressed concern about several recently approved legal projects and laws which could lead to "an excessive control of the government over media outlets" and could "seriously affect their economic viability," said Mr Riess.

The delegation presented its preliminary findings during the press conference and will produce a final document and recommendations to be presented to the government and media outlets in the country.

Referring to the absolute lack of dialogue amongst both parties, WAN-IFRA said: "the conversations initiated here must be promoted both nationally and internationally. After all, dialogue is the cornerstone of any democratic society."

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