Social Media Is the Only Freedom That We Still Have

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On Tuesday night, I was crawling into bed, exhausted, when I checked my Twitter feed and noticed a post, with photographs, addressed to me. Protesters were holding candles and waving Ecuadorean flags in the photos.

“happening now at the Hotel entrance. Ecuadorian Journalist for PressFreedom PLS Listen”.

I sighed. My hotel bed was comfortable. Maybe this was just a prank.

Original text by Jim Yardley in:
www.nytimes.com

I got dressed, took the elevator to the lobby and checked the front door. Nothing. Inside the expansive media center provided for reporters traveling with Pope Francis, desserts were arrayed on a table. Several journalists were still filing stories. Normal. Another hotel entrance was nearby, but a security officer had blocked it by erecting a temporary wall decorated with images of Francis.

Odd.

I wiggled around the wall but saw nothing suspicious. I sent a response on Twitter from the lobby and returned to my room:

“just walked downstairs but didn’t see anyone”

I got back in bed and made another final check of my phone. Another Twitter message awaited, this one with a photo showing the wall I had wiggled around. I hadn’t looked hard enough.

“The journalists about 80 are on the street. MainEntrance”

Clothes back on, down the elevator again, this time with genuine curiosity. Outside the hotel, I found five people holding one Ecuadorean flag, the stragglers from the larger rally in the original photograph. I told them social media must still be free, given how they had tracked me down. They laughed.

“Social media is the only freedom that we still have,” said Maria-Laura Patiño, one of the group.

With the world’s media at their doorstep, they had staged a small demonstration outside our hotel to draw attention to one of the ironies of Francis’ trip to Ecuador. Even as the government has treated us like visiting dignitaries, journalists in Ecuador are under intense pressure. Ecuador’s Constitution provides freedom of expression, but civil society leaders say the reality is far different, as newspapers and journalists critical of the government of President Rafael Correa can face legal prosecution and other pressures.

“We are just citizens,” Isabel Proano told me, “and we wanted to bring attention to the issue of freedom of expression – which we had none of.”

We talked for a while and they wandered home, as I returned to my room and flipped open my laptop to search “Ecuador” and “freedom of expression.” I had known that the Correa government had been criticized for quashing dissent, but the search results were revealing.

Freedom House, the global watchdog organization that ranks countries on freedom of expression, rated Ecuador this year as “not free”. It accused Mr. Correa and other political leaders of creating a hostile environment for the media, and using a 2013 communications law as a tool to intimidate and legally sanction critics in the media. Mr. Correa also has filed several criminal and civil defamation cases against critical journalists.

Next, I found a news release by the Committee to Protect Journalists, dated June 16, barely three weeks before Francis arrived. It described how Ecuador’s state media oversight commission had fined an independent daily newspaper, El Universo, about $350,000.

Why? In March, El Universo published an exposé alleging problems at state-run hospitals. Journalists attempted to interview the government official in charge but got no reply. The day after the story was published, Mr. Correa criticized it on Twitter, arguing it had failed to allow a government response. Doing so, under Ecuadorean law, is punishable.

A government minister ordered El Universo to publish the state’s long rebuttal. The newspaper complied, but wrote its own headlines and did not publish government-drafted summaries that claimed the original story was designed to trick readers. Boom. A $350,000 fine.

You can find example after example if you keep searching.

I was reminded of one of the inevitable compromises of being inside any traveling media bubble. You go through a country, but you are not really in it.

The traveling papal media gets trays of empanadas and sliced fruit. The locals get fined.

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