Cablegate: How Free Is the Press in Ecuador?

Published: Wed 13 Oct 2004 05:05 PM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
REF: 03 Quito 3782
1. Summary. Continuing a longstanding battle with the
press (Reftel), President Gutirrez recently called for a
judicial investigation of a prominent radio director for
possible seditious remarks in suggesting the president had
received campaign contributions from Colombia's FARC in the
2000 presidential campaign. The media cried foul, and
charged the president with yet another attempt to stifle
free speech. At the same time, a recent battle between two
national television channels demonstrates the chilling
impact on freedom of expression of business and private
interests on the media. Although the media has covered this
media controversy in-depth, its consequences have received
little scrutiny or analysis. End Summary.
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Gutierrez picks yet another fight with the press
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2. During his presidency, President Gutirrez has picked
several fights with the media. Last year, exasperated over
negative coverage, he considered proposing a gag law to
suppress articles he considered biased against him. He also
threatened to sue leading daily "El Comercio" for alleging
that he had received campaign contributions from a former
provincial governor under arrest for drug trafficking. In
all cases, after riling the press and causing a firestorm
among media analysts, he has backed down.
3. Last month, at the presentation to the media of his new
Secretary of Communications and Spokesperson, Ivan Oa (the
fourth person in the 22 months of the Gutierrez
Administration to hold this position), President Gutirrez
singled out a number of media, including leading newspapers
"El Universo" and "El Comercio", major television channels
"Ecuavisa" and "Teleamazonas" and the Director of "Radio
Vision" Diego Oquendo for telling "half-truths". After a
predictable outcry from the media, which accused the
administration of once again attempting to stifle freedom of
press, Oa appeared on Oquendo's morning interview program,
denied that the Administration had proposed legal action
against any media outlet, and said that the only intent was
to initiate a discussion of ways to eliminate rumors that
harm the successful governance of the country.
4. Shortly after Oa's conciliatory appearance with Oquendo
on "Radio Vision", President Gutirrez sent a letter to the
Quito provincial prosecutor requesting an investigation of
Oquendo for what he characterized as possibly criminal
remarks against national security made in an interview with
an ex-minister close to Gutirrez. In the interview,
Oquendo stated he had information from reliable, highly
placed sources that Colombia's FARC had contributed to
Gutirrez's 2000 presidential campaign and asked if this
were true. (The ex-minister responded in the negative.) In
the wake of Gutirrez's request for an investigation,
Oquendo, a longtime critic of Gutierrez, has used his
morning radio program as a bully pulpit to lash out against
the Administration and its "campaign against the press".
The media, which, in general, has no great affection for the
president, has rallied behind Oquendo. The president,
through Oa, has unsuccessfully tried to calm the debate by
claiming he was not accusing Oquendo of a crime, but was
merely asking the prosecutor to determine the facts.
Pressures from the private sector
5. In September, Teleamazonas, one of four major national
channels in Ecuador, began a series of programs on the bank
collapse of 1999-2000 and individuals connected with it.
Teleamazonas is owned by Fidel Egas who is the majority
stockholder of Banco del Pichincha, the largest Ecuadorian
bank. One segment was to have focused on Roberto Isaias, a
member of a family that owns television stations Gamavision
and TC in Guayaquil, as well as CN3, a cable news station.
Isaas is now a fugitive and is residing in the U.S.; he was
convicted in absentia of fraud in the collapse of Filabanco
and his case is now before an appellate court.
6. Officials from Teleamazonas and Banco de Pichincha
reported to Embassy officials that Roberto Isaas contacted
the station and threatened retaliation if the segment on him
aired. Those involved believed Isaas was concerned that
negative media coverage could adversely affect the pending
appellate decision in his case. Teleamazonas offered to
send a crew to Florida to allow Isaas to appear on camera
and give his side of the story, but he declined and the
station proceeded to run the story. At the same time,
Teleamazonas ran a story on Congressional deputy Patricio
Dvila, former head of the Agency of Security Deposits,
which implied that he had unjustly profited from Ecuador's
banking collapse.
7. TCTV responded with a series of news stories
questioning the solvency of the Banco del Pichincha (despite
official government audit reports to the contrary), which
resulted in significant withdrawals and speculation of
collapse. At the same time, Davila accused the Bank of
accounting irregularities. Also, Social Christian Party
leader Leon Febres-Cordero, a congressional deputy, former
president, and Isaas ally, initiated a legal process to
withdraw Teleamazonas' license based on a law prohibiting
banks from owning communication media.
8. Faced with this onslaught, Teleamazonas and Banco del
Pichincha sued for peace. Catholic church leaders brokered
talks resulting in a "non-aggression pact" whereby
Teleamazonas agreed to back off coverage of the Isaas
family connection to the Filibanco banking failure, and TCTV
agreed to stop its attacks on the Banco del Pichincha.
Concurrently, Teleamazonas promised to cease coverage of the
accusations against Dvila, and he in turn agreed to desist
from making allegations of banking improprieties. Thus far,
the truce has held. Bank officials told Embassy officers
that the bank is regaining its heretofore-solid credibility
and depositors are returning. Teleamazonas believes the
legal case against it will soon be dropped. A leading
Teleamazonas producer told us, however, that this "soap
opera" has had a chilling effect on Teleamazonas and the
station will be more careful about whose interests it
offends in the future.
9. During his tenure, Gutirrez has often been at odds with
the press. His efforts to reign in the media, however, have
been unsuccessful, and served only to create an outcry by
and rally to arms of the media themselves. Such incidents
as the Oquendo case have served to provoke discussion of the
importance of freedom of the press and the need to resist
governmental intimidation and interference.
10. More troubling is the chilling effect of private and
business interests on the media demonstrated by the TCTV-
Teleamazonas dispute. It is an example of the economic
interests which limit freedom of the press by inhibiting the
press from performing its watchdog function. In contrast to
the Oquendo case, there was scant coverage or analysis of
this dispute. The fact that the press feels free to
criticize the government, but not a fugitive banker and his
family business interests, reveals much about where the
power lies in Ecuador.
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