Freedom of Speech Under Attack in Ecuador

Freedom of speech is coming under attack again in President Rafael Correa’s Ecuador. Last year Correa sent armed soldiers before dawn to some 200 private businesses, including three television stations, on the pretext that the owner (an unpopular businessman and critic of the government) had not paid money owed to the government.

It was never clear why the government had to place its own people in charge of running those businesses rather than go through the usual auditing or bankruptcy procedures. The result was to reduce criticism of the government at those TV stations and send a message to the rest of the media. At the time, Gabriela Calderón, Cato’s Ecuador-based editor of our Spanish language web site, www.elcato.org, hosted a weekly talk show program on CN3 TV station with two other market-liberal commentators. The station was one of the ones taken over, after which, Gabriela and her colleagues were told that from then on, their show had to “balanced” and include pro-government spokespersons. Gabriela and her colleagues quit in protest and the show went off the air.

Now Correa is enforcing a law that explicitly violates freedom of speech. Ecuador has been an officially dollarized country since 2000, before Correa came to power. Years of high oil prices have financed an explosion in government spending. With oil prices down, Correa’s populist project is quickly running out of money and people are speculating that he will de-dollarize Ecuador, allowing him to run the printing presses. However, it is illegal in Ecuador to suggest that the country will de-dollarize, as that would violate the law against spreading rumors of devaluation. The first victim has been Rómulo López Sabando, an attorney and long-time columnist for the Diario Expreso. On March 24 he wrote a column indicating that the government is planning to dedollarize. For committing that crime, the government ordered his arrest. He has been in hiding since.

It’s a very good bet that the government will de-dollarize this year, yet the Ecuadorian press has been silent on the matter. As the law victimizes the press and, more generally, Ecuadorian democracy, López remains in hiding and the arrest warrant still holds. Will Obama and other hemispheric leaders meeting at the summit of the Americas later this week denounce these abuses?