Press freedom has deteriorated since President Gutiérrez took office and his relations with the media are very tense. A journalist was sentenced to six months in prison for libel.
Relations between President Lucio Gutiérrez and the media have deteriorated since he took office on 15 January 2003; On World Press Freedom Day (May 3), The Guayaquil daily Expreso criticised poor access to public information.
The situation worsened after the left-wing Democratic Popular Movement left the ruling coalition in July, followed by a split between the government and the Pachakutik party, which represents the country’s 40% indigenous population. Gutiérrez said he was under "strong pressure" from the media and relations reached rock-bottom in September, when he accused it of teaming up with the opposition to set the population against him. He made various threats and said he would get a law passed severely punishing press offences, but this did not happen.
A mysterious extreme-right group called the Legión Blanca threatened a number of journalists in 2003. Rodrigo Fierro, of El Comercio, was sentenced to six months imprisonment for libel, but remained free pending an appeal.
An obscure far-right group called Legión Blanca threatened in an 15 February 2003 e-mail message to "get rid of reds, socialists, homosexuals, prostitutes and human rights activists who in the eyes of God and democracy are a gangrene to be cut out." It named three journalists and seven "red" media and said the only thing left for them was to "pray for their souls." The Ecumenical Human Rights Commission said the group had first made threats to journalists, human rights bodies and social organisations in 2001.
The daily El Comercio pulled from the paper at the last minute on 20 September paid death announcements by the Legión Blanca of five people, including Kintto Lucas, correspondent in Ecuador of the IPS news agency and editor of the satirical fortnightly Tintají, political and economic analyst Pablo Dávalos, who works for several papers and radio stations, and Marlon Carrión, exiled head of the former alternative news agency Pachacamac. Lucas said the offices of Tintají had twice been the target of burglary and attempted burglary over the previous four months. The new Legión Blanca threats were troubling because they were no longer just by e-mail.
Harassment and obstruction
Col. Patricio Acosta, the government secretary-general, criticised Katherine Mendoza, of the daily Expreso, on 10 March 2003 for saying he was a close associate of President Gutiérrez and for criticising the presence of military officers in key posts since Gutiérrez, an army colonel, had been president. The paper had that day run an article about corruption and the military.
Wilson Cabrera, owner and head of Radio Canela FM, in Macas (400 km southeast of Quito), was summoned on 2 May by Morona Santiago provincial governor Dionisio Cando Flores, who criticised him for reporting rumours that provincial officials had extorted bribes from people seeking government jobs.
President Gutiérrez said on 5 September that the government would present a law to guarantee press freedom that would also severely punish those who "defamed people, spread rumours, who lied and were despicable." He accused the media of linking up with the opposition to set the people against him. After strong protests, the president’s press secretary said on 11 September that Gutiérrez had not meant a law but a "campaign" against such things.
Armed forces commander Gen. Octavio Romero summoned editors on 11 September and told them the army would henceforth require them to reveal their sources of information, saying that "just as you demand openness, so do we."
Government spokesman Marcelo Cevallos said in mid-September that President Gutiérrez could not sign the Declaration of Chapultepec press freedom pledge because it clashed with a 1975 law requiring a journalism degree and membership of a journalists institute before being allowed to work in the profession. This was seen as a sign of government intent to enforce the mostly-ignored provision. However in early October Gutiérrez signed the Declaration, which was proposed by the Inter American Press Association for signature by the continent’s heads of state as a promise to respect 10 principles of press freedom, including abolition of compulsory membership of press institutes.
The daily paper Hoy rejected on 17 October accusations by energy minister Carlos Arboleda on the TV station Ecuavisión the previous day that it had waged a "disinformation campaign" against him because one of the paper’s shareholders belonged to the firm Seguros Colonial, which was seeking government contracts. Arboleda did not name the shareholder and said he would check further. Hoy had often criticised the government for not having a coherent oil policy. One of the paper’s journalists was refused access to a press conference given by the minister on 14 October.
Rodrigo Fierro, a columnist with the Quito daily El Comercio, had a six-month prison sentence for libel reduced to one month by an appeals court on 12 December. A lower court had sentenced him on 19 September after agreeing with a complaint by former President Leon Febres, now a right-wing Social Christian Party member of parliament, about a 29 May article accusing him of having governed the country for the "wealthy oligarchy." The journalist filed an appeal which delayed application of the sentence.