Press freedom was tested during new social unrest during 2001 and survived. But a future threat may come from a court system that has started to hand out prison terms for press offences.

Social unrest once again threatened freedom of the press in 2001 but did it little harm. The government declared a seven-day state of emergency in February in response to a violent protest movement by the indigenous population, who represent a third of the country's more than 12 million people. The measure gave the president power to censor the media. But there were very few infringements of press freedom and some of those there were came from the demonstrators themselves.

Court decisions limiting freedom of expression were a new cause of concern however. Three journalists were prosecuted for defamation and threatened either with big fines liable to bankrupt their employers or with prison terms.

A journalist attacked

David Montalvo, of the daily Expreso, was attacked by thugs on 15 February 2001 near the frontier with Colombia as he was investigating the increased violence in the area after an influx of Colombian refugees and Ecuadorians driven from their homes by the war across the border.

Pressure and obstruction

The government press department asked the media on 29 January 2001 "not to report rumours aimed at causing panic" and asked newspaper editors to "ensure balanced coverage of the news." The president imposed a state of emergency on 2 February which gave him power to censure the press. The country had been gripped since 21 January by a protest movement among the country's indigenous population against price increases (100% more for fuel and 75% more for public transport) that came into force on 1 January. The state of emergency was lifted on 9 February.

Five human rights campaigners forced their way into the offices of the Italian news agency ANSA on 30 January to get the agency's correspondent, Fernando Larenas, to report their point of view. A similar incident occurred a week earlier at the offices of the US television network CNN.

On 4 February, a bomb damaged a building in the capital housing the offices of Reuters news agency and the newspaper Tiempos del Mundo. Police said they did not know who was responsible for the attack, which occurred during a period of serious unrest.

On 5 February, the government's Special Operations Unit (GOE) refused to allow the national and international press into the Salesian University, which was occupied by thousands of protesting indigenous people.

In early June, the three-month prison sentence imposed on Wilson Cabrera, founder and managing editor of the newspaper El Observador and the station Radio Canela FM, which broadcasts from Macas, in Morona Santiago province (400 km southeast of Quito), expired under the law six months after it had been handed down. Cabrera had been sentenced on 28 November 2000 for defamation after denouncing alleged irregularities in the town government and local legal system. In early June, he was able to return home after being in hiding for six months to avoid going to jail.

On 20 July, Fernando Rosero, a parliamentary deputy of the opposition Partido Roldosista Ecuatoriano, sued Jorge Vivanco Mendieta, deputy managing editor of the Guayaquil daily Expreso, for $1 million in damages, alleging he had suffered "moral prejudice" following an article by Vivanco entitled "Generals don't defend themselves," in which he said Rosero had made false accusations against the army. Rosero also brought a criminal case against Vivanco for libel.

Malena Cardona Batallas, a journalist formerly with the station Televisión Manabita, broadcasting from Portoviejo (300 km southwest of Quito), was sentenced on 25 July to a month in prison and fined 80 sucres (1 euros = 22,500 sucres) for "slander" against a parliamentary deputy, Roberto Rodríguez, who accused the journalist of having questioned him, during a broadcast on 30 May 2000, about his alleged involvement in a fraud against a handicapped person. The sentence was upheld by an appeal court on 14 December. The journalist, who left the TV station after the incident, said she would appeal the verdict to the supreme court.


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