Ecuadorian Newspaper Still Fined for Nothing

Judge William Román denied the precautionary measures filed by newspaper La Hora. According to Román, Mayor José Bolívar Castillo's accountability ceremony  was information of public interest and the Ecuadorian daily had the obligation to cover it. (SuperCom)
Judge Román ruled that La Hora failed to serve the public interest in not covering an event held by Mayor José Bolívar Castillo. (SuperCom)

EspañolEcuadorian daily La Hora will have to pay a US$3,500 fine imposed by the Superintendency of Communications (SuperCom) for failing to cover a local mayor’s speech, after Judge William Román denied an appeal by the newspaper following a three-hour session on Friday.

On May 13, SuperCom sanctioned La Hora for not devoting column inches to an event held by the mayor of the city of Loja, Bolívar Castillo, in which he read out public accounts in a purported show of transparency. Castillo had filed a complaint stating that the paper “willfully” failed to write up the occasion. La Hora subsequently declared it would fight having to pay the fine.

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Santiago Guarderas, defense lawyer for La Hora, explained that they had filed an appeal, describing the punishment as a “violation of the rights of legal certainty, due process, effective judicial protection, and freedom of speech.”

However, Judge Román ruled that Supercom’s decision does not infringe the right to freedom of expression, and argued that journalists don’t have the right to choose what they write about.

“I don’t think that discretion should be left to the journalist. Journalists cannot arbitrarily say, ‘I will cover this, but this I will not,'” Román told the court.

“In this case, I think the accountability ceremony is very important information for society. How will people make the decision to support an official if they don’t have this information?” he added.

Moreover, the judicial official argued that the right to receive appropriate information constitutes a public service in Ecuador, so and as such “there must be a general and continuous provision of the service.”

He supported his argument with comparison to the public provision of drinking water. “The media are like the pipes that carry water. If there are no such means through which it is distributed in a widespread way, citizens would be denied that right,” he said.

“Sanity has been lost in this country. We will appeal!”

After the verdict, La Hora’s managing editor Luis Eduardo Vivanco asserted that they will file another appeal of the decision “as a matter of common sense”.

Vivanco criticized the argument given by the judge that information is a public service, despite the fact that an imminent constitutional amendment to that effect is yet to take place.

“For judicial purposes in this country, we [journalists] are now the same as a supplier of sewage treatment or electricity,” he complained.

“Journalists in Ecuador are very happy.”

“This has been going on since [Spanish dictator Francisco] Franco. It’s Fraga’s law, the imposition of content of general interest … Politicians and judges will now be the editors-in-chief and news editors of the media,” he added, referring to a 1966 law created by Spanish politician Manuel Fraga that imposed restrictions on the media and encouraged pro-government coverage.

“Government power is taking over editorial lines and news content. I hope we’ll be able to take this one step back at some point in the future,” Vivanco concluded.

“New Attack” Against Free Press

Both civil society organizations and ordinary citizens have expressed their support for La Hora.

Using the hashtag #PropagandaNoEsNoticia (Propaganda is not news), social media users have applauded the newspaper’s resistance against the 12 legal proceedings mounted against La Hora by the government since 2013.

“Eternally grateful. We resist together.”

The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) branded the sanction against La Hora a “new attack” by the Ecuadorian government against privately-owned media that publish content “regarded as counter-productive to the interests of the authorities.”

According to IAPA President Gustavo Mohme, the fine is another example of how the country’s Organic Communications Law is “a weapon that the government uses to intervene in content and overrule the editorial criteria of the media.”

The Forum of Ecuadorian Journalists (FOPE) meanwhile described the fine as a “bad precedent” for journalism in the country.

With the latest ruling, FOPE said in a statement, “there is a risk that any public official can request a punishment for a media outlet that doesn’t cover one of their events, disregarding every journalistic principle.”

“Journalism by definition does not serve any power or any source … Journalism is not propaganda,” the association wrote.

La Hora, Not the Only One

On May 12, national daily El Comercio was forced by SuperCom to retract and apologize for an article on the government’s Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric project.

The story, written by journalist Alberto Araujo and published on April 5, exposed upward revisions in the total cost of the project. The government body ruled that the paper had distorted the truth regarding the project.

El Comercio presented 21 documents as evidence of the research conducted for the article, including figures found on the websites of public entities, but was forced to publish the rectification on May 19.

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