But the new law—like those already on the books—may not be used by Correa to target journalists who publish only on social media. According to Sebastían Donoso, an intellectual property lawyer based in Quito, Ecuadorean criminal law—which Correa has used in defamation cases against journalists—dates back to 1938, decades before the birth of social media. While the failure to mention social media in Ecuadorean law doesn’t necessarily prevent Correa from applying it to work published on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, Donoso said he doesn’t think the government will start going after everyone who criticizes the government online, for this reason: Unlike with other media forms, journalists aren’t the only people who use social media to express their opinions. Regulating online commentary, then, would mean going after many more than just journalists.
“I think it’s tough for the government to try to hinder people from saying what they want to in social media,” said Donoso. “I don’t think that the government is going to go after everybody. They cannot do that. They’re smarter than that.” Instead, he said, President Correa wants to make an example out of a few big cases, as he did with El Universo.
That means that journalists can continue to take advantage of this loophole. Mena said many of Ecuadorean journalists use social media not only to report the news, but also to express opinions that might have gotten them in trouble had they appeared in an opinion article in a newspaper.
“On Twitter, people write things that could be considered by the government an accusation or defamation,” he said.
One such example is Janeth Hinostroza, a reporter for private broadcast company Teleamazonas. Both CPJ and El Comercio, a daily newspaper based in Quito, have written about Hinostroza, President Correa’s nasty remarks about her, and his attempts to discredit her journalism. CPJ reported that Correa has questioned Hinostroza’s intellect, and ordered Teleamazonas to preempt her program with a government official who doubted her ethics on the air. Despite this, Hinostroza criticizes Correa over and over again in via Twitter; in fact, between February 2 and March 20, Hinostroza mentioned Correa in 57 tweets, nearly all of them critical. Her tweets about Correa have included comments like, “the problem with ‘Rafael’ is he thinks everyone who thinks differently than him is ‘bad;’” “Correa wanted to teach the press a lesson not of ethics but of power now we know how far he’ll go;” “Correa can’t teach the press a lesson by teaching Ecuador that they can violate laws and rights and get away with it;” and “Correa has ordered me to shut up hahaha the problem is that I don’t listen.”
Correa’s attempts to silence traditional media has actually ramped up online debate; through social media, journalists have been able to engage citizens in open dialogue about the state of press freedom in Ecuador. On February 15, El Universo posted on its Facebook page that the sentence against their editors was upheld unanimously. Within 30 minutes, 240 comments had flooded in. Some defended the president, and some were bitter commentaries, complaining that Ecuador looked increasingly like Cuba or Venezuela, or that Correa’s media assaults were a source of international shame. “[H]e is corrupt and it’s an embarrassment to be Ecuadorean,” wrote one.
Donoso observed that social media has begun to take the place of organized protests. “Right now you don’t’ have many people in the streets, but you have thousands of people chatting on Facebook and exchanging ideas,” he said.
However, according to the International Telecommunications Union, only 29 percent of Ecuadoreans used the Internet in 2010, so even the discussion that does exist online is not available to most of the population.
And those enjoying their freedom of expression on social media worry that these outlets will be Correa’s next targets. Mena said he thinks the government is already monitoring journalists’ tweets and comments online. He explained that the state-run media has already used quotes from journalists’ twitter accounts in its reports, signaling that the government is following what journalists are writing. In November 2011, a citizen was detained for threatening Correa on Twitter, also signaling that the government is closely following the Twitter world. Pablo Villacís, director of Ecuadorean news website Ciudadanía Informada, said that he believes journalists are already self-censoring their comments on social media for fear of being monitored. “People are more careful about expressing themselves on the Internet, and it creates an atmosphere of fear in society,” he said. “It’s difficult to measure how much each journalist is trying to leave aside certain subjects that could be investigated.”