09 July 2008

IAPA alarmed at Ecuador’s seizure of TV stations


The organization calls attention to governments’ dangerous shift toward editorial control and creation of new media by several Latin American countries


Miami (July 9, 2008)—The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) today expressed alarm and serious concern at Ecuador’s confiscation of two television channels followed by government imposition of official editorial control over them, calling the acts  “a serious violation of the public’s right to information.”


Early yesterday (July 8) police seized privately-owned channels Gamavisión and TC Televisión and cable TV affiliate CN3, all belonging to the Isaias financial group, after the state Depository Guarantee Agency (AGD) ordered the confiscation of 195 properties of the former owners of Filanbanco in a move intended to recuperate losses incurred by that bank, according to local and international news agencies. The action sparked protests by the targeted media outlets’ journalists and other employees angered at the suspension of newscasts and a change in editorial policy.


Despite the fact that the authorities may have been justified in taking action, the chairman of the IAPA’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Gonzalo Marroquín, declared, “What cannot be condoned in any way whatsoever is that the action taken against the companies also involved taking over editorial policy under a government-appointed news director.”


Marroquín, editor of the Guatemala City, Guatemala, newspaper Prensa Libre, added, “That action does nothing more than disguise a censorship policy as if it were legal.” He said that IAPA policy in such cases is to respectfully request transparency and due process, “but not at the expense of a news outlet’s editorial policy being subjugated.” He went on, “It is obvious that the new director will have a different editorial view and he will not be at all independent of the government’s position – that much is very clear.”


The government fired the television stations’ news directors and named journalist José Toledo to replace them.


Since 1998 Roberto and William Isaias, former managers of Filanbanco, have faced criminal proceedings for alleged embezzlement of the bank’s funds and the bank was taken over by the government, The agency that ordered the action, the AGD, is responsible for guaranteeing repayment of deposits to clients by financial institutions undergoing reorganization. 


Marroquín declared that within the political unrest existing in the country, this could be a political move by President Rafael Correa to undermine the independence of news media as the upcoming constituent assembly approaches, “what we do fear is that these acts are like those we condemned by the Fujimori government and the current Chávez administration, where all types of excuses were used to silence and shut down news media.”


The IAPA in recent reports on the state of press freedom in the Americas has been calling attention to the dangerous positions of some Latin American governments -- namely Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela -- which have set up news media outlets using public funds to act as agents of political propaganda.


Marroquín recalled that in Ecuador following the confiscation of the Guayaquil newspaper El Telégrafo last year the government promised that the paper would be sold off at auction “although we now see that they are keeping it as an official gazette.”


The Ecuadorean government’s AGD seized El Telégrafo after confiscating the assets of banker Fernando Aspiazu, the major shareholder, who was jailed on charges of fraud and unlawful activity in the now defunct Banco de Progreso he owned.  The newly redesigned newspaper was relaunched in March this year with a hard-hitting official advertising campaign.


The IAPA’s concern springs from statements made yesterday by Policy Coordination Minister Ricardo Patiño, who in response to a question about the future of the TV channels raised by the newspaper El Comercio said, “I cannot tell you whether or not in the end the winner will be a government agency, a university, a community-owned enterprise or someone who is from the world of culture. I would like the news media to be more democratic.”


According to Gamavisión General Manager Nicolás Vega the channel no longer belongs to the Isaias group so so he seesthe AGD order as an attack on free speech.. Meanwhile, TC Televisión executives explained that the channel belongs to Estéfano Isaias, a brother of the accused who is not involved in the criminal proceedings.


In a separate incident not connected to the confiscation of the television channels, during the night of July 7 a Guayaquil radio station critical of the government, Radio Sucre, was shut down on orders of the Telecommunications Oversight Agency (Suptel) due to alleged problems with the frequency, currently under a license that was not renewed by the National Radio and Television Council (Conatel).       


The IAPA has scheduled a discussion on Ecuador and the possibility of sending an international mission to that country during its Executive Committee Meeting to be held next week in Miami.