César Ricaurte has his own war room. It is a modest meeting room, in the offices of the Andean Foundation for Media Observation and Study (Fundamedios), in a building in the north of Quito. Next to the wall, a whiteboard is on the floor. On the whiteboard, the strengths and weaknesses of Fundamedios are written. Ricaurte is the director of Fundamedios, an organization that defends freedom of expression, and which Rafael Correa’s government threatened to dissolve, a threat which they later went back on. The whiteboard details the conclusions of the meetings that Ricaurte held with his team during the attack from the government, which finished, for now, with a warning, which to the director of the Foundation sounds like pure feudalism.
|Lea este texto en español:
President Correa said that the problem in Latin America is that there are many honest politicians persecuted by corrupt, bad and very bad journalists. What do you think about this?
What the president of the Republic says has no empirical support. History tells us that the opposite is true; there are dozens of journalists who are persecuted and are often assassinated by dishonest politicians, who are even associated with criminals or drug traffickers, as happens in Mexico with many local politicians. This is more than documented. In Mexico, at least 80 journalists have died in the last five years, journalists who have been assassinated for daring to confront corrupt powers. There is not even one case of an honest politician who has been imprisoned or assassinated by the press.
Those who are imprisoned or accused of corruption in Latin America are in that situation because they are corrupt. There have been presidents who have broken the law and violated human rights, like Fujimori in Peru or Collor de Melo in Brazil. These are not persecutions, it is reality.
César Ricaurte is one of the founders of Fundamedios, and since 2006, he has been the executive director. In his notable career as a journalist, he worked for El Comercio and El Universo newspapers, and for the television station Ecuavisa.
This statement demonstrates a way of viewing history and making the politics that this Government has imposed in Ecuador State politics. In the case of Fundamedios, the organization feared a decision that was taken, but then the Secretary of Communication, Fernando Alvarado, announced a personal decision to give Fundamedios another opportunity. What do you think about these facts?
This whole process is evidence of the arbitrary, abusive and domineering way in which the government officials act. The process has no legal basis at all, not at the beginning when we were accused of playing politics, nor in their claim, for which the alleged evidence was activity on social networks, nor in the moment when we asked that they examine the evidence and we presented supporting documentation and pronouncements from five international rapporteurs. None of this was assessed; if initiating the process was already abusive, its resolution is an ode to arbitrariness. Basically, they are saying that they are such good people and are so magnanimous that even though we have violated laws, they are going to exonerate us, because of a verbal request from the ombudsman. Nothing was assessed in the process; this demonstrates that it was arbitrary, abusive and domineering.
Where does this leave the Rule of Law that Correísmo prides itself on, if we are at the mercy of government officials’ personal decisions?
Absolutely. If one objectively analyses this process, this is clearly demonstrated. The finishing touch was the Secretary of Communication’s statement on his blog: I dislike Fundamedios profoundly, I think they are the worst, but I am going to be kind and be so magnanimous that I will give them another opportunity. Alvarado is behaving like a mini emperor, who decides on the life or death of organizations. He graciously grants us the fundamental human right of freedom of association and to defend what we believe in, even though the government thinks that we are wrong. Human rights are not a concession, but are something that the State should guarantee.
Is this not another example of the unenlightened view that the government has on politics, society and the State? In Ecuador are there no longer citizens of a democratic Republic but subjects liable to be granted mercy by those in power, as it was in medieval times?
Totally. This is why I said to the newspaper El País [The Country] that the underlying problem is that the government do not want an autonomous society; they want a submissive society, both civil society and the press. They want us to be obedient and disciplined. They are probably more sophisticated than they were a few decades ago, in the sense that they do not shut down the media, they do not assassinate journalists as they did in the old dictatorships, but they want to suppress and discipline us, they want us to bow down. A few days after Fernando Alvarado made these statements, he still keeps saying things and thinks he can do so with impunity; he thinks that he can say whatever he wants, and can express his authoritarian and even feudal opinions about society. He has no shame in saying that he censored the media on 30S (30 September of 2010, the date of the police revolt), but that it was for their own good, to discipline them, so that they enter the fold. They are different expressions of the same idea; it is worrying that not only the president of the Republic, but also mid-level civil servants believe themselves to be feudal lords, to whom the king has given some power and they can do whatever they like without respecting any law, at their own will.
Correísmo has established a “precedent” on reprieves, the El Universo [The Universe] case and the El Gran Hermano [The Big Brother] case, for example. Did Fundamedios think that it was going to be on Correísmo’s list of reprieves?
No, the first scenario that we handled in this crisis was the closure. We were preparing for that. When they declared us in resistance, we thought of this. We said that we were not going to hand Fundamedios over to the Secretariat of Communication (SECOM – Spanish acronym), they will have to come for us. We did not think that we would be granted a reprieve, because since 2011, Correísmo has subjected Fundamedios and the Ecuadorian Association of Newspaper Editors (AEDEP – Spanish acronym) to persecution. Fundamedios and I have been the favorites of the stations and sabatinas [the President’s weekly television address which is held on Saturdays]. There was personal malice, which is demonstrated by the Secretary of Communication’s statements. When Fundamedios was transferred from the Ministry of Economic and Social Inclusion to the Secretariat of Communication, we felt that it was being placed in the hands of its main attacker and critic. SECOM is not only judge and jury, but they throw dirt at us; they accuse us of terrible things, like insinuating that I am getting rich and that Fundamedios is a personal business. They are so inept, however, that after saying that Fundamedios handles millions of dollars from the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) and USAID (United States Agency for International Development), they themselves reveal that in our best year we received 350 or 360 million dollars, and we must be the most brilliant administrators in history, as with this amount we have supposedly destabilized the government, mounted an international campaign and on top of that, I have gotten rich.
You say that Fundamedios was preparing to be closed down. What did this preparation consist of?
We had contingency plans and protocols about what to do before, during and after the closure. We formed a crisis committee, and we analyzed our strengths and weaknesses. We believe that our strengths lie in international advocacy, our support on social networks, how we were trending on Twitter, our credibility and our legal protection. We did not plan to dismiss our employees, but we wanted to protect them and their families. Our weaknesses are the propaganda machines, the State media and resources that are against us, the stations, the trolls and the fact that they were judge and jury. We did not have anyone to turn to, but at the end of the day international advocacy prevailed. I think that this played an important part, although they had already made a decision. Something made them back down; I think it was the international support and pressure, like the internal mobilization on networks. There was not even one respectable supporter in favor of the closure, they did not expect this. They thought that with the myths they had created about us, people would turn their backs on us.
The circumstances are different, we are not in the era when they closed the Pachamama Foundation, they wanted to say that there was a process, but this is a different time because of the political and economic crisis. They are negotiating with Europe, for example, and in light of this they thought that the cost was too high. We are not sure if this was an act of the Government or only the act of the feudal lord, the viceroy that heads the Secretariat of Communication. The president did not make a single reference to the Fundamedios case, and when asked about it, he went around in circles; this caught our attention. In the end, we do not know if they have learned to protect the President’s image, as their “greatest treasure”, or if it was Alvarado’s unilateral action.
What is the future of Fundamedios? The pardon is with strings, a “last warning” in their “pedagogical” language. Faced with this, what should Fundamedios do?
We feel stronger. The rapporteurs have said that we are a recognized organization. We have great credibility and we have solidarity networks. However, it is clear that there is a warning and that governments of this kind can do whatever they want, at any cost. We are not going to stop publishing news alerts, which are supposedly designed to harm Ecuador. This is not the intention of our news alerts, which is why we do not accept this warning. SECOM do not have the legal authority to give these warnings. If we have to revise the protocols, we will do so; we could have been mistaken in some cases, we will revise each alert. However, I believe that, in general, the 1320 alerts that we have broadcast have a basis in truth. This is a great opportunity for SECOM to listen to the Ombudsman and to enter into a national dialogue on matters like freedom of expression, and on how the State should guarantee and protect journalistic work. As a civil society, we can help and contribute, but it is not our obligation but that of the Sate to protect the work of journalists.
How can this dialogue be implemented?
It is an open dialogue. If SECOM is worried about Fundamedio’s alerts, I think we can talk about it, but this is not what is important. Freedoms should be guaranteed, and decrees that violate fundamental rights should be revoked. On a practical level, we are going to continue with our work. We will take precautions, we will sleep with one eye open, we will constantly be alert, but we will still keep doing what we have to do. The support is not for Fundamedios, but so that they keep respecting freedom of expression. Attacks on the press have to be denounced, and online journalism, independent journalism should be encouraged.
The United States Government protested vigorously in this case. Did you speak with Washington, with international rapporteurs, or were these spontaneous protests?
We send information to our databases, but we have not had any direct contact with the Government of the United States. We thought that it was a very strong pronouncement, which we are very grateful for, but we think of it as one more of the 50 pronouncements that there were. Many other governments and organizations protested in private before Ecuador’s Chancellery. We have not spoken with all the governments and people, but solidarity networks were launched. For example, if organizations like Amnesty International, which has its headquarters in London, take a stance, it is clear that governments will worry. The Secretary of Communication, in his unawareness of the world, did not realize the international impact of this step: closing a human rights organization set off alarms.
Is this Government’s policy more about teaching lessons than punishing people?
It is true that their actions are focused on control and subjugation in all social spaces, even the most private, like sexuality, private life, and drugs. Even still, do not underestimate them; they do not just make threats, if allowed they will go even further. They have backed down in a small number of cases. They have backed down more than anything else because of the reaction these cases have provoked on an international level, as happened in the case of the newspaper El Universo, and of Juan Carlos Calderón y Christian Zurita, among others. However, currently there are other scenarios, and they have been used to having their pockets full and the support of the people.