“They made me choose between my job and my freedom to speak. I continued speaking and now I am unemployed”. These 20 words in the Twitter profile of journalist Martín Pallares describe very accurately his current situation. With a remarkable career in the Ecuadorian media, Pallares has been one of the leading critics of those in power and, in recent years, of the government of Rafael Correa. His criticisms earned him the president’s constant disparagement and even anonymous threats through the social networks. However, the consequences of his confrontation with those in power became tangible on Monday, August 17, when the journalist was fired from the newspaper where he had worked for the past 13 years.
Martín Pallares is a journalist with a long career in the Ecuadorian press. He was editor of the political section of the newspaper El Comercio and also worked for the newspapers Hoy and El Universo. He was a correspondent for the newspaper El Tiempo of Bogotá in Ecuador. Knight Fellow, Stanford University, 2010. Before being dismissed from El Comercio, he was in charge of new digital developments and wrote a weekly opinion column.
How did your departure from El Comercio come about?
I believe there is an awful atmosphere of self-censorship, I believe that neither journalists nor the media escape that terror, my dismissal occurred within that context.
Before going into the details of my departure, I believe it is necessary to understand that it happened in the context of a terribly hostile environment for the press, with a Communications Law that forces the media and journalists to live in a state of permanent distress. The fear of being prosecuted either by the Communications Superintendency on the side of law or by any judge in this country. I believe there is an awful atmosphere of self-censorship, I believe that neither journalists nor the media escape that terror; my dismissal occurred within that context. The newspaper where I worked always let me know they feared my personal comments and the comments I made in my newspaper articles. At the paper I was always the kind of element that generates certain concerns; I was frequently told that I had to think about the jobs of 800 families…
I always tried to be very careful but I believe my departure was not solely linked to the statements I made through the social networks. I believe this was something the company had already planned.
Before the issue involving Twitter I had already received an “invitation” to leave the newspaper, I was told I should think, negotiate. The truth is that the issue involving Twitter occurred while I was thinking and meditating. On Thursday August 13, Carlos Mantilla, president and CEO of the company, told me I had to choose between the comments I made on my personal accounts and continuing to work for the newspaper.
The truth is that I was absolutely stunned by this condition, I didn’t even know how to react. I believed they referred to comments on Twitter that were offensive against something, that included slander, etc. The truth is that I had to reflect on the subject. That weekend it was my turn to work, I was in the paper’s newsroom and that weekend many things happened that I could not keep quiet about and I realized that the option they had presented was not an option at all.
Freedom of expression is non-negotiable, Martín…
Absolutely. The option they had presented was beneath them, accepting it would be beneath me. And a series of events multiplied. That Saturday there were evacuations in Cotopaxi that caused many problems, there was the emergency decree and suddenly I felt the almost physical, chemical, bodily need to say what I thought, and I did.
I repeat, I did it while being aware that the option they had presented to me was not an option. The choice was beneath a journalist or any citizen for that matter. I expressed my views on Twitter and I thought that the decree declaring the state of emergency contained certain aspects that violated fundamental freedoms, I believed it was an abuse of power, I still believe it is an abuse of power, and I said so.
On Monday August 17 I headed towards the newspaper, I was on my way to the newspaper, and I received a call telling me to go to Carlos Mantilla’s office and that is how it happened, they had my severance pay ready. So that is how I was fired.
|Listen the full interview: (Spanish)
So how come you chose freedom of expression, above anything else…
I don’t believe I can say I chose it; it is an instinct. I believe a free man cannot silence the forces within him, I think the choice I was given did not include a choice.
When the director presented you with this option, did they mention a specific ‘tweet’?
When they presented the option I asked what had happened and they mentioned two things: that I had disrespected the president (Rafael Correa) in a tweet and that I was repeatedly at odds with the Alvarado brothers. I was struck especially by the second issue, about the Alvarado brothers. I had, in fact, had a confrontation with Vinicio Alvarado on Twitter, but that had been two years or a year and a half earlier. I had had another one recently with Fernando Alvarado, but it had not really been public because the ‘tweets’ that showed this confrontation had been direct messages. So I was struck by the fact that they had been aware of this. But I was told this on Thursday.
But beyond this event, the media have been distressed in recent years. How has the Communications Law changed the way journalism is exercised?
I think the change has been dramatic. The level of panic in the newsrooms is huge. Sometimes I wonder whether the threat is greater than the fear, especially among those in managerial posts. I understand a lot about this because this sword of Damocles – the processes and the fines – may lead a media outlet to bankruptcy. In that sense I fully understand the directors of certain media outlets who suffer about everything that is said in their newsrooms, everything that is written in their newspapers, (shown) on their TV stations.
We have seen processes that are nothing less than absurd and almost comical if that could be possible, processes have been initiated because a presenter once used the word ‘maid’, and because another mentioned ‘peeing’. Bonil’s case itself is cartoonish. This has caused lawyers to have an unusual importance in newspapers’ newsrooms and it is very sad when you have to talk to a lawyer about headlines and texts.
At the end of the day it is not the editor who decides but the lawyer…
I don’t know if we have gone that far, but the editor is greatly influenced by the lawyers.
How has Martín regarded the imposition of content from the Communications Secretariat (Secom), the repeated requests for rectification and reply? What was his experience of this in El Comercio’s newsroom?
They are so clumsy, so grotesque and tragicomic, I believe it is a blessing that they are that way. This will go down in history as one of the most brutal moments of authoritarian ineptitude, because authoritarianism is absolutely grotesque when it is inept. Those rectifications, with texts written at the Communications Superintendency, including the layout, the headline, I believe we should frame them. We should save all these things as a great treasure because when this is over, when this nightmare is over, those who are responsible for it will have to explain, not just to Ecuadorians, or the descendants of Ecuadorians, but to the world. It is funny somehow while at the same time being tragic, it is grotesque. It is a blessing they are doing these things because at some point this will be a document of one of the most shameful periods in the history of Ecuador.
Are the media hand-tied right now?
Yes and no. Yes because clearly there is this pressure and because the threat of these processes is real, some fines can mean the closure of media outlets. No, because I believe the Ecuadorian press has lacked a certain level of rebelliousness. I think some things are disgraceful, those rectifications for example. I think that when faced by those rectifications there should be a more rebellious attitude. I am not saying that they should not be issued, I am saying they should be put on display; this in any civilized country in the world – I do not include Zimbabwe or Burundi -, this when presented to the public in any moderately civilized country would be symptomatic of an absolutely philistine mentality, not even 19th Century because the Enlightenment had already happened. This is from the 10th or 11th Century. I do believe the Ecuadorian press has lacked a degree of rebelliousness, it has lacked even a sense of the comical because these are the things we should have made fun of the most.
During those 13 years that you worked at El Comercio, did you ever imagine having to leave the paper for your freedom in social networks and because of this context we are discussing?
Unfortunately, yes. I felt that fear at some point. The sale of El Comercio by the Mantilla family to another group was never transparent enough for us to know what to expect. There were always some dark patches there. I must acknowledge that the new management also gave me wonderful freedoms, it gave me the possibility of writing a weekly column for the opinion page where what I said was sometimes quite direct, quite harsh. I believe, however, that in the midst of this lack of transparency, this uncertainty of not knowing who one’s boss really is, one never rules out anything. So this was a possibility that I did see coming, especially because I had already been invited to leave the company.
What should we expect from Ecuadorian journalism in the coming years? What should we expect considering all this that is being implemented, with this law that many consider a gag?
I believe the restrictions are so barbaric, so absurd and I see that the power that sustains them is weakening so much, that I think the time has come to start disrespecting them. I think the time has come not only to denounce them, but to find ways of bypassing them so we can say (what has to be said). I believe there is no greater sin than not battling this tyranny of silence that they want to impose on us. Any gesture, even insignificant ones, as mine may have been, rebelling so that I could continue saying certain things in private social network accounts, are necessary gestures in a battle against this tyranny of silence. I believe there is nothing worse for a person than imposed silence.
Salman Rushdie, the great British writer, says that storytelling is one of the most natural, most essential aspects of being human. It enables us to understand ourselves and understand each other and when we are prevented from telling stories it is not just our freedom of expression that comes under attack, but our human nature, and I believe this is what is happening.
Is journalism irreverent by nature?
Journalism is questioning by nature, rightly or wrongly, and I think that is what makes it necessary, questioning and supervising. I believe that is why we are here today, because when there is a wish to monopolize the truth there will always be attempts to eliminate critical voices; I believe that is why we are here.
Speaking of your long history in the Ecuadorian media, what led you to become a journalist?
I don’t know, I still don’t know. I think we are doomed to make noise wherever we are, I will find somewhere to make noise.
What will happen to Martín Pallares? Will you continue writing?
I will continue writing, I don’t know where yet. I am going to spend a few weeks thinking calmly, but I will continue writing and making noise because there is no way round it. That is what we are made of, making noise. Giving that up is like giving up being human.
Anyway, we can still read you on Twitter…
Soon. I have spent some days cooling down, processing these circumstances.