Friday, October 26, 2012

Government of Ecuador Serves as Media Watchdog

By: Rebecca McKinsey
Produced & Edited by: Kaylyn Hlavaty

In September 2010, the National Police of Ecuador rioted over legislation affecting their bonuses and promotions. It was the type of breaking-news event that is a journalist's dream to cover.

And every broadcast station in the country was playing the same thing — a government feed. TV viewers were receiving only one view, and it wasn't an objective one being offered by trained journalists; it was the government's slant on the events.

Journalists that day were disappointed by the TV takeover, but not shocked, said Gail Burkhardt, a reporter for The Monitor inMcAllen, Texas, who worked at a daily newspaper in Ecuador, called HOY during the riots.

“(The reporters) were used to living in a country where the president has that much power over the media,” Burkhardt said.

The relationship between Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and the local media outlets that attempt to cover him is rife with secrecy, tricks and a disregard for freedom of information, journalists say.

Unlike the journalistic system in the United States, which is set up — at its best — to allow journalists to serve as independent journalism watchdogs, the scale between the media and government in Ecuador is much less balanced. Right now, the government has the upper hand, said Jorge Imbaquingo, a journalist with HOY, a daily newspaper in Ecuador.

 HOY journalist, Jorge Imbaquingo. Photo courtesy of Stanford University's 
John S. Knight journalism program. Academic Fair Use.

“The problem is that the media fell into the game and plays the role of victims,” he said.

Correa has been quoted as describing members of the Ecuadorian media in many ways, few of them complimentary. He's called the media “his greatest enemy.” He's described Ecuadorian journalists as “shameless,” “hungry dogs,” “filthy,” “disgusting” and “liars” in public speeches.

Information coming from the president's office is highly controlled, and journalists don't have much choice over the material they can use, Burkhardt said.

“Reporters have to rely on public speeches and interviews the president grants with the government's channel,” she said. “Obviously, they can't ask their own questions to the president.”

The relationship between Correa and the Ecuadorain media is clearly imperfect, said Robertson Vinueza, a coordinator at La Agencia de Noticias Andes (or the AndesNews Agency), a public information company that distributes content on political, economic, athletic, social and cultural issues.

“It's no secret on an international scale that there doesn't exist a positive relationship,” Vinueza said “It is a relationship of harrassment. … Editorialists and opinion leaders say there is no freedom of expression.”

However, with the onset and rapid development of social media, the opinions of state leaders such as Correa are more accessible online, Vinueza said. Correa himself has a Twitter account, @MashiRafael.

In August, Correa spoke to The Guardian journalist Jonathan Watts and said that it had been necessary to rein in media outlets because they had enjoyed too much power for too long.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa. Photo courtesy of 
Wikimedia Commons. Academic Fair Use.

We won't tolerate abuses and crimes made every day in the name of freedom of speech,” he said. “That is freedom of extortion and blackmail.”

Because of his views toward Ecuadorian media, Correa's decision to grant asylum to Julian Assange caused eyebrows to raise. Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, which publishes secret information and serves as a whistleblower, has become a symbol for freedom of information. However, Imbaquingo said Correa's display of support for Assange is not paralleled in his work with Ecuadorian journalists.

“I think the fact that the government of Ecuador has granted asylum to Julian Assange only proves that it is a ploy for those who do not know the reality of this country, who believe that this government does respect the freedom of information and expression,” Imbaquingo said.

However, Vinueza said Correa's decision to extend asylum to Assange was a diplomatic decision, not a political one.

“As far as asylum, I think that is a right that should be considered for every human being,” Vinueza said.

Still, there's an inconsistency between the asylum granted to Assange and the Correa's availability to members of the media, according to The Committee to Protect Journalists' Carlos Lauría.

“As Ecuador provides support to Assange — an assertive if controversial force in promoting the free flow of information — it would do well to start listening to its critics, domestic and international, and unstop the flow of information right at home,” he said.

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