Journalists in Ecuador work in a climate of growing hostility, physical danger and self-censorship, marked by an increase in the power of criminal gangs and drug cartels, as well as an increase in threats, physical attacks and even murders.
El Comercio and El Universo are the country’s two leading newspapers, where the practice of journalism is being impacted by both economic difficulties and the climate of violence. While the online media is trying to take over investigative reporting, their busines model is not solid enough, as evidenced by the recent closure of the Los 4 Pelagatos website.
President Rafael Correa’s three successive terms, from 2007 to 2017, have been dire for press freedom. The former president has constantly tried to control the media’s agenda and transform the public media into state media, never hesitating to publicly and personally attack his critics in the press, and starting countless conflicts between the government and the independent press. Lenín Moreno’s presidency, from 2017 to 2021, and Guillermo Lasso, who was elected president in May 2021, have eased tensions between the government and many privately owned outlets. Nonetheless, Lasso recently attacked the La Posta news site over its coverage of “El Gran Padrino”, a case involving a member of his family.
The Organic Law on Communication (LOC), enacted in 2013, has been diverted from its original purpose and has often backfired against journalists. It has been used, for example, to justify dismissals, defamation suits and fines imposed on reporters. But the LOC’s most critical aspects were reformed under Lasso. The notion of “media lynching”, the role of media supervisor and article 10 on regulating journalistic ethics were all abolished.
The traditional media business model has been hit hard by a series of political and economic factors compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic. Many newspapers, such as La Hora or the state-owned daily El Telégrafo, now only exist online, many radio stations have dropped their news slots, and even the leading daily El Comercio has fired many of its employees. The number of websites is on the rise, but they have yet to establish a solid business model.
Ecuadorian journalism had a difficult year in 2022 due to an increase in violence linked to a rise in drug-related crime, as well as the pre-election atmosphere – regional elections and the referendum of 5 February 2023. The contract-style murders of journalists Mike Cabrera, Gerardo Delgado and César Vivanco (for as yet unexplained reasons that could have been linked to their journalistic work or their status as pre-candidates in regional elections), the frequent death threats against journalists and attacks on news media point to a structural violence and impunity that affect the profession and, more broadly, Ecuadorian society as a whole. In border areas such as the provinces of Esmeraldas and El Oro, and in ports where the cartels operate, local journalists increasingly censor themselves, creating news and information "black holes” in several of the country’s regions.