For three years, Ecuadorean journalist Lindon Sanmartín Rodriguez and his brother Pablo hosted a freewheeling talk radio show that analyzed the economy, wrestled with religious issues, and criticized the government of President Rafael Correa. They called it Digálo con Libertad, meaning Say it with Freedom.
But in late 2010, the Sanmartín brothers were suddenly no longer allowed to say much of anything with freedom. Radio Satélital, the privately owned radio station they worked for in their hometown of Loja, canceled their show without explanation—another apparent victim of the anti-press policies of President Rafael Correa.
Those victims are many, and in many cases the president has successfully repressed them into silence or self-censorship. For a few months, the Sanmartín brothers chose the latter option, staying on the air to do morning news reports at Radio Satélital. But the station’s managers told them to avoid saying anything negative about “friends” of the station—like the local governor, the assemblyman, or the director of a hospital who had been investigated for corruption. As restrictions tightened, the brothers felt they could no longer do their jobs effectively. So last March, they both quit.
“I would not be pressured to change my journalistic criteria and praise corruption,” Lindon Sanmartín wrote in an e-mail interview. “I’d prefer to stay home.”
Staying home does not mean staying silent, though. While he and his brother have been working to get airtime from another radio station, Lindon Sanmartín has been making use of social media. He and his brother can now be heard via an online radio station and read on his blog and his active Twitter feed, where he provides his Loja audience with aggregated international headlines, national and regional news, and opinion articles. The blog is headlined by his name, along with the tagline, “official site for information from the province of Loja, Ecuador, and the world.”
Hundreds of Ecuadorean journalists like Sanmartín are using social media to inform citizens, express their opinions, and encourage open dialogue at a time when the government is desperately trying to silence them. “Ecuadorean journalists have been using social media, like Twitter and Facebook, in an active way,” said Paúl Mena, an Ecuadorean journalist and coordinator of the Ecuadorean Journalists’ Forum, who follows a list of 219 Ecuadorean journalists’ Twitter accounts.
Although President Correa’s attempts to curb traditional media have gained international attention and criticism, the government has not moved to stop the online conversation, even when it is highly critical of national or local government officials. In fact, one of the main topics for journalists using social media is the government’s attempt to control traditional press.
There is plenty to write about. According to a special report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), since Correa took office, he has built a network of more than 15 state-owned media outlets, which use government funding to compete against the country’s private media. He has brought to court—and won—several defamation cases. A January 11 Washington Post opinion article called Correa’s attempts to quash press freedom “the most comprehensive and ruthless assault on free media underway in the Western hemisphere.”
Most widely covered was his case against the daily newspaper El Universo (see Storify), which he charged with defamation for an opinion article written by columnist Emilio Palacio. Palacio and the newspaper’s three owners were found guilty, with repercussions of three years in prison and $40 million in fines, and their sentence was upheld by Ecuador’s highest court.
Although President Correa pardoned El Universo on February 27, he did not convince the world that his assault on the media would stop. A March 16 Forbes article wrote that Correa’s pardon didn’t change what he had accomplished through the El Universo case. “He sent a clear message to the press and everyone else that he controls the courts, and can use them as a weapon whenever and however he wants, including to punish and chill free speech by his critics.”
And there is more. Correa’s latest effort to stifle the media is contained in a new elections law, passed in January, which prohibits the publication of any information about an election for 48 hours before the polls open. The law also makes it illegal to “directly or indirectly” promote a candidate for 90 days leading up to an election.
Carlos Lauría, senior Americas program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said the broadly worded law essentially outlaws even a profile of a candidate in the three months prior to voting. “This deprives citizens of their right to stay informed on election news,” Lauria wrote in an article on CPJ’s website.