This phrase -- We’re Missing Three -- has been omnipresent in Ecuador since March 26, when three members of a reporting team for El Comercio, one of the country’s main daily newspapers, were kidnapped near the border with Colombia. On April 13, after several weeks filled with confusion and conflicting information, Ecuadorian authorities confirmed the three had been killed, likely by their captors, a dissident offshoot of Colombia’s FARC guerrilla group.
The loss of these three men -- young reporter Javier Ortega, veteran photographer Paúl Rivas, and their driver, Efraín Segarra -- has shattered the journalist community in Ecuador, where physical violence against journalists is a rare occurrence. Since the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) began documenting cases in 1992, only two Ecuadorian journalists have been killed in relation to their work, the most recent in 2012.
In his speech on April 13 confirming the deaths of the El Comercio team, President Lenín Moreno saluted the journalists’ sacrifice, and called on the media and the Ecuadorian public to exercise their right to free expression to critique the government's response.
These words were especially significant coming from Moreno, the former vice president under Rafael Correa, who spent a decade turning Ecuador into one of the most repressive media environments in the Americas.
Under Correa, media companies were decimated and reporters intimidated into silence. He used his weekly television and radio appearances to attack the media, criticizing individual journalists and de-legitimizing outlets long before “fake news” entered the global lexicon. Correa lashed out at anyone he viewed as critical, resorting to personal attacks or bringing exhorbitant lawsuits designed to bankrupt media outlets.
This constant threat left Ecuador’s independent journalists anxious and paranoid. Reporters left their jobs, or engaged in self-censorship to protect themselves. The example set by the presidency trickled down to local governments, where officials felt emboldened to go after journalists for coverage they viewed as damaging to their reputation.
“We learned to walk a very fine line,” said Alexis Serrano, a politics reporter with newspaper La Hora.
“You have no idea what [response] you might be exposing yourself to when you report on something,” said Carolina Mella, who hosts the Visión 360 program on Ecuavisa, a private news channel that was a primary target of Correa’s fury.
Since Moreno took office nearly a year ago, there has been a clear shift in rhetoric. He has distanced himself from Correa’s legacy and pledged to improve the government’s relationship with the media, meeting with reporters and instructing staff to enact legal reforms to improve press freedom across the country.
Reporters say the change of tone has allowed them to breathe a little more freely for the first time in years.
“There has been an improvement in the climate, with less aggression toward the media,” César Ricaurte, director of Ecuadorian press freedom organization Fundamedios, told a CPJ delegation that visited Ecuador last month. “It’s a moment of romance between the press and the government, the press has been much more favorable to Moreno.”
But this romance is likely to be short-lived without action to back up the rhetoric. The damage wrought by a decade of all-out war on the media cannot be undone in a year, and many of the most destructive policies are embedded in Ecuadorian law, which cannot be changed with a few photo ops.
The most hostile piece of Correa’s legal structure may be the 2013 Communications Law (Ley Orgánica de Comunicación), often referred to as the Ley Mordaza, or “Gag Law.” This legislation turned Ecuador into one of the most repressive countries for media in the Spanish-speaking world, imposing restrictions designed to silence or dismantle whole sectors of the media.
“We practically had to work with the law in one hand, which of course leads to self-censorship,” said Milton Pérez, executive producer of news at private television station Teleamazonas.
Correa’s government also created an agency, the Superintendency of Information and Telecommunications, known as Supercom, to enforce the law. The Supercom acted as judge and jury, levying sanctions and imposing absurd fines that served as warnings to other journalists.El Comercio
Now the Supercom has been largely defanged, issuing far fewer citations, and has been leaderless since its disgraced former director, Carlos Ochoa, was removed in March. Meanwhile, the judiciary has begun to rule in favor of press freedom, recently dismissing charges against high-profile journalists Martín Pallares and Fernando Villavicencio, who both faced defamation lawsuits leftover from the Correa era.
Still, the law is a threat as long as it remains on the books. During our visit to Ecuador, multiple journalists described the law as a “loaded gun” -- silent for now, but just as dangerous as ever.
“As long as the law exists, it remains completely intimidatory,” said César Pérez, deputy director of El Universo.
Ecuador's Constitution requires a national communications law, so the government has said it cannot simply get rid of the law, but it has promised to reform it. In a meeting with CPJ in March, Communications Minister Andrés Michelena promised that reforms would be implemented before the end of this year. The government has also invited international experts David Kaye and Edison Lanza, the Special Rapporteurs for Freedom of Expression at the UN and Organization of American States, respectively, to visit the country and make sure the proposed reforms meet international standards.
These promises point to a willingness to roll back the worst parts of a dark era, when people were afraid to speak, write -- or even draw political cartoons. If Moreno truly wants to root out corruption, he must understand that he cannot do so without a free and independent media.
As we mark World Press Freedom Day, the tragic loss of the El Comercio team has brought the issue of press freedom to the forefront of the country’s public dialogue, but the truth is that Ecuador’s journalists have been under siege for years.
Now, there may be signs of light coming in through the cracks of the structure that Correa built, but it will take political will and commitment from the government, and support from all sectors of society, to ensure Ecuador can rebuild a truly free press and, through that, a functioning democracy.