Sunday, October 3, 2010

Police riots in Ecuador

By Gail Burkhardt,

IIJ Foreign Correspondence Intern

E. W. Scripps School of Journalism

This week, Ecuador shook, and it was not from an eruption from one of its many volcanoes. Thursday morning, National Police across the country began protesting a new law that they said would cut their benefits. The protests began peacefully, but quickly escalated. Police burnt tires to block roads and threw tear gas at the president sending him to the hospital. Then National Police blocked the hospital, keeping the president there for 10 hours until he was rescued by aids and soldiers. The rescue and ensuing violence left three dead in Quito and more than 200 people injured.

Photos taken by Gail Burkhardt at the General Command Center.

As an IIJ intern for the Ecuadorian national paper, Hoy, through the Bob Considine Memorial Scholarship, I saw of the events first hand and even covered part of the protest by chance. Thursday morning as I was walking to meet a reporter and photographer to cover something else, I came across a group of police officers and civilians protesting in front of the National Police General Command Center. I called my editor and she asked me to cover it. The protest was peaceful for the most part. People held up signs that read, “Respect the Police,” “We risk our lives” etc. The officers were willing to answer my questions, but not willing to give me their names. Later someone lit a tire on fire, but it was extinguished quickly. I called my editor again and she told me to head to the newsroom immediately. While in the taxi on my way to the newsroom, I heard how serious the situation was on the radio and throughout the rest of the day watched, listened and read about the events with a feeling of panic.

The Two Sides

The National Police said they were protesting the new Public Service Law that the General Assembly had just voted on because it would cut their benefits and bonuses. The president claims police officers have not even read the law and it will not cut their benefits. General Assembly members also say the law will still provide bonuses and benefits for police officers.

Correa called the protest an attempted coup on his presidency backed by ex-president Lucio Gutierrez , which Gutierrez denies. Most Ecuadorians that I have talked to lament the violence of the National Police, but have varying opinions of Correa. The president has brought some stability to the small country where past presidents were removed or left office before their full term. Correa is known for his tough and brash leadership style. He defaulted on millions of dollars of national debt and has put more restrictions on foreign countries that buy and farm petroleum here. His tough and sometimes stubborn attitude came out Thursday when he told the police to kill him if they dared.

Press Restrictions

On Thursday, I could not get Hoy’s website to load. I thought it was an unfortunate coincidence with so much breaking news going on, but it turns out that our website was blocked by the government. Reporters posted the happenings on Twitter, but the actual website would not load until Thursday night. Also because Ecuador is in a State of Siege, the government is allowed to force broadcast stations to link to the official government channel, which they did Thursday night only allowing viewers to see one side of the story. The Sociedad Interamericana de la Prensa (Interamerican Press Society) condemned the government’s restrictions asking it to allow Ecuador to have a free press. Correa has been vocal in the past about his feelings toward media organizations calling them his “Greatest enemy,” and attacking them on his weekly shows on government channels, according to a BBC profile of Correa, that I recommend reading. It is strange that I work for a large daily in the capital, and I am having a hard time finding information on the strikes. I have had to go to U.S. and British news sources to get the whole story.

Calm Returns

It seems that the situation calmed down almost as quickly as it escalated. After his rescue, President Rafael Correa returned to the presidential palace and fervently spoke to a crowd of supporters and reporters about how he was standing firm against the uprising. He declared a state of siege, putting the military in control of security. The next day the buses ran, and although I was warned about robberies, I faced no problems. Freddy Martinez, the former commander of the National Police, resigned Friday because he could not control the protest. Reuters reported that National Police began to work again on Friday. Today I visited the colonial center where the presidential palace is located and not too far from where the violence occurred. Besides the unnerving view of armed soldiers everywhere guarding the palace and some new graffiti calling the police vulgar names, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

This riots opened my eyes, not only to press laws in other countries, but also how quickly a protest can escalate. While the experience was scary, it taught me how important it is to report honestly and to look at both sides of the issue.

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