By John Otis/CPJ Andes Correspondent
It’s by far the dullest space in the newspaper: Every day in El Universo, Ecuador’s leading daily, readers can find eight small photos and news blurbs summing up the activities of the eight presidential candidates. The articles are the same size and blocked together in a layout that resembles a tic-tac-toe game, minus the ninth square.
This drab coverage is one result of reforms to the electoral law that took effect in February 2012, which prohibit biased reporting on electoral campaigns and allows candidates to sue reporters and news outlets who allegedly violate the law. To avoid lawsuits, El Universo’s editors have set aside an inside page of the newspaper devoting equal space to everyone from the frontrunner--President Rafael Correa, who is seeking a third term--to fringe candidates.
That may sound like fair and balanced reporting, but it’s also shallow. Journalists and press analysts told CPJ that the electoral law has made it far more difficult to pursue aggressive, investigative reporting ahead of the February 17 presidential and legislative elections.
“The media have been covering electoral events without providing much analysis, debate, or discussion,” César Ricaurte, director of the Quito-based press freedom group Fundamedios, told CPJ. “It’s very different from the press coverage of past elections.”
A recent Fundamedios survey of the country’s top 10 newspapers during the first three weeks of January 2013 found that 93 percent of their election stories were short, descriptive articles with very little analysis or opinion. The report stated that “many reporters and editorial writers have opted for self-censorship.”
They would appear to have good reason for caution. Last year, the newsmagazine Vistazo was fined $80,000 for expressing an opinion about a national referendum. The magazine’s May 6, 2011, editorial urged voters to reject parts of a May 7 ballot that included measures giving the government greater control over media content and ownership. An Ecuadoran court ruled that the editorial constituted political propaganda and violated a provision of the electoral law that prohibits “disseminating political or electoral propaganda” in the days leading up to an election.
There are fears of similar reprisals if news outlets take a strong stance in an editorial or publish a hard-hitting story about a candidate. One editor, who did not want to be identified, described writing and rewriting stories and columns up to four times to avoid any hint of controversy and the possibility of a fine.
This editor referred to recent allegations in the media that Jorge Glas, who is President Correa’s vice presidential running mate, may have plagiarized part of his engineering school thesis in the 1990s. Glas has denied the allegations.
This editor’s publication has not touched the story out of fear that it could be interpreted by the National Electoral Council--the government institution responsible for monitoring press coverage of the elections--as political propaganda designed to damage the Correa-Glas ticket.
There’s a similar dilemma when it comes to the hundreds of candidates running for seats in the National Assembly. Many are former government officials. However, delving into allegations that some of them may have been inept or corrupt during their time in public office could be construed as electoral propaganda, said Janet Hinostroza, a news show host for the private television station Teleamazonas.
“We don’t dare investigate them. Nobody does out of fear of being sanctioned under the electoral law,” Hinostroza told CPJ. “It’s absurd but that’s the reality.” Christian Zurita, a reporter for El Universo who was sued by Correa for his reporting on official corruption, told CPJ that most of the newspaper’s investigations are on hold until after the election.
At least one news outlet has pulled the plug on an investigative report of alleged wrongdoing by government officials for fear of reprisal, journalists at that news outlet told CPJ. To disseminate the information, they passed it around to other media to see if there were any takers. Once published by another news outlet, the reporters who did the original investigation returned to the issue and produced stories based on the government’s reaction.
As the private hold back, some editors and reporters claim that news outlets controlled by the government are serving as propaganda machines for Correa, who is heavily favored to win another four-year term.
Speaking at a journalism conference in Quito in November, José Hernández, an assistant editor at the daily Hoy newspaper, noted that TC and Gama TV, two television stations that were confiscated by the government, provided wall-to-wall coverage when Correa registered his candidacy, while ignoring similar events by rival candidates.
TC and Gama TV also broadcast a satirical video linking opposition presidential candidate and banker Guillermo Lasso to the country’s banking crisis in the late 1990s, which led to a deeply unpopular government bailout of financial institutions.
The elaborate video, which includes about a dozen cast members and is loosely based on the Italian opera “La Traviata,” centers on a Lasso-like character who appears at a sumptuous feast, then breaks into a song about how his victory will guarantee the return of Ecuador’s upper class to power. Although the TV stations were not sanctioned, broadcasting the video would appear to violate the electoral law, and Lasso denounced it as part of what he called a “dirty war” against his campaign.
Patricio Barriga, the government’s acting communications secretary, insisted that the private media is waging an even dirtier smear campaign against Correa and have provided an open microphone to his critics. He dismissed claims that journalists were being forced to scale back their electoral coverage and said an abundance of critical reports stand as clear evidence of broad press freedom in Ecuador. The private media “is being irresponsible,” Barriga told CPJ. “Rather than inform, they want to play role of opposition to the government and that is even worse.”
Orlando Pérez, editor of the state-controlled newspaper El Telégrafo, said the new measures governing electoral press coverage are forcing the media to be more careful and professional, which he says is a good thing.
With election day approaching, many reporters and editors are scratching their heads over how they’ll cover the event, especially in the wake of the fine levied against Vistazo.
The electoral law calls for “electoral silence” from the media starting 48 hours before the voting begins and lasting until the polls close. It prohibits the publication or broadcast of advertising, opinions, or images related to the elections. That would seem to rule out news photos and even many stories about the candidates and the elections, said Monica Almeida, an editor at El Universo. “I don’t know what we’re going to do on election day,” she said.
John Otis, CPJ's Andes correspondent for the Americas program, works as a correspondent for Time magazine and the Global Post. He authored the 2010 book Law of the Jungle, about U.S. military contractors kidnapped by Colombian rebels, and is based in Bogotá, Colombia.
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