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Propaganda campaign against independent media and rights organisation intensifies

(Left-to-right) Mauricio Alarcón and César Ricaurte of FUNDAMEDIOS at an IACHR meeting on free expression in Ecuador
(Left-to-right) Mauricio Alarcón and César Ricaurte of FUNDAMEDIOS at an IACHR meeting on free expression in Ecuador

Patricia Leiva/OAS

As government officials were interrupting various news programmes attempting to discredit FUNDAMEDIOS, the IFEX member in Ecuador, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) was wrapping up a press freedom mission that concluded independent media workers in the country face a general "climate of hostility." Even more alarming are death threats sent to staff of the Andean Foundation for Media Observation & Study (FUNDAMEDIOS) at the same time.

The hostility is aggressively incited by government officials, who falsely accused FUNDAMEDIOS of everything from being involved with criminal groups to failing to report attacks against government-owned media. Government broadcasts targeting FUNDAMEDIOS in late October and early November have inspired government supporters to suggest via social media that FUNDAMEDIOS members should be "eliminated," FUNDAMEDIOS reports.

In a statement, FUNDAMEDIOS said it "firmly condemns as false and malicious the attempt to link us with individuals who, according to the government, are connected with crimes against the State or conspiracies."

The campaign against FUNDAMEDIOS was stepped up after it participated in a hearing about press freedom in Ecuador before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington, D.C. on 25 October. The hearing was specifically requested by FUNDAMEDIOS and other members of civil society as a reaction to the government's campaign against the independent press. Immediately following, IACHR says Ecuador's government issued a broadcast, which all radio and television stations were required to air, "with statements clearly meant to discredit the petitioning organisation FUNDAMEDIOS, its director [César Ricaurte], and the other participants in the hearing."

Reacting strongly to this intimidation, IACHR released a public statement on 4 November, saying it "expresses its deepest concern over the fact that some of the individuals who appear at IACHR hearings and working meetings have been subject to threats, reprisals and actions to discredit them, on the part of both private individuals and, in some cases, high-level State officials."

One independent journalist, Wilson Cabrera, who worked with the recently closed Radio Station Voz de la Esmeralda Oriental, was barred from flying to the IACHR hearing by authorities, FUNDAMEDIOS reports.

"They are only trying to look after business interests…who are in an ongoing campaign against the government," alleged Ecuadorian Chancellor Ricardo Patiño during a press conference that attempted to discredit FUNDAMEDIOS's IACHR intervention as being economically motivated. "They couldn't care less about the citizens' rights to live well."

On 3 November, meanwhile, WAN-IFRA concluded its five-day mission during which it met with numerous independent and government media, government officials and representatives of local organisations.

The delegation expressed grave concern over the burgeoning concentration of media outlets under direct or indirect government control, the frequent verbal attacks against journalists by government officials and the President, and the use of outrageous fines in criminal and civil defamation lawsuits to bankrupt independent media outlets.

Currently, journalists Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita face a civil lawsuit against the President, who is calling on the court to order US$10 million for damages relating to their book, "El Gran Hermano", on the President's role in official corruption, WAN-IFRA reports. According to FUNDAMEDIOS, Calderón received a threatening phone call in October: "This is where Calderón lives, the arrogant writer. Get ready because it's your turn now," the male voice said into the phone.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a US$40 million defamation fine slapped against "El Universo" staff in July.

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