Ecuador Puts A Price On Press Freedom


This is the second part of Paris Ling's story on citizen journalism and corruption in Riobamba. Read part one here.

In late January this year, on the morning of Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa's scheduled campaign stop in Riobamba, the 3000-strong petition collected at the Signatures for Dignity rally at Parque Sucre was taken to the government anti-corruption organisation.

Inside, Ramon Gonzalez photographed a poster depicting a trashcan emblazoned with the words, “we put corruption in its place” and shared it with 1500 Facebook followers. An investigation was ordered.

Later that day President Correa gave a fiery speech about how his Citizens' Revolution had put the power back into the hands of the people. As he left the stage into a controlled corridor full of barricades and security guards Gonzalez managed to squeeze through and hand Correa the book of signatures asking the President to “free us from the corruption”.

Correa was re-elected with a 30 per cent majority over his closest rival. He told Ecuadorians from the balcony of his presidential palace on 17 February, “We will be present wherever we can be useful, wherever we can best serve our fellow citizens and our Latin American brothers.”

Three days later Anonymous hacked the municipal government’s Facebook page to unmask the identities behind the fake Facebook “sockpuppet” profiles, that aggressively attacked government critics. The Director of Public Relations, Danilo Villaroel, was among those discovered.

"Riobamba it’s the hour to rise up and fight for our second independence," proclaimed the masked Guy Fawkes on Anonymous’ Facebook page in a video that clocked 10,024 views in 24 hours. The 191st anniversary of the city’s independence was weeks away.

After community pressure a municipal commission confirmed that Batán road was illegally sealed to conceal the construction of a villa for Riobamba's Mayor, Juan Salazar Lopez.  Afterwards Anonymous declared, “The street belongs to all. Destroy the cartels, paint the walls again, reinstall the rubble, but we will not keep silent. The wall must fall, so ordered the Oversight Committee of the Municipality. Tear down the wall. Let no one trust those who build walls instead of bridges.”

A week later the Wall of Batán was torn down. It was not televised, but the event was widely shared on social networks and reported by two local newspapers, the Diario de los Andes and La Prensa, operating in a climate extremely antagonistic to the local press.

At 7:30pm the next day, 300 citizens — schoolkids on bicycles, families with small children and a marching band — noisily marched past Salazar’s villa and arbitrarily renamed the stolen road the Street of Dignity.

On 12 April it was made public that $13 million from the municipal governments bank account had been transferred into 31 different accounts around the country. Salazar claimed the account had been hacked but the Central Bank of Ecuador refuted the claim over Twitter saying the transfers were made "with the authorisation of the Mayor and the treasurer with their respective keys."

The story of the missing $13 million exploded in the national press and forced President Correa's political party to publicly withdraw support from Salazar.  The two-week process to dismiss Salazar was initiated days before the anniversary of the city's independence.

In his Code of Ethics booklet, Ignacio Mancheno refers to his former journalism students as “future colleagues" “When you are confused and the line between good and bad is blurred, a code of ethics operates like a compass to someone who is disoriented: it points north,” he advises them.

A career in journalism contains times of “clarity and obscurity, enthusiasm and discouragement, triumph and defeat,” he says. Following this Code of Ethics has forced Mancheno into unemployment and consumed his life savings, but the journalist believes that's the price of admission for those who choose "the best profession in the world".

In Mancheno's study hangs a collection of antique swords. One dating from 17th century France “was used by one of Commander Sucre's men to liberate the city in the Battle of Riobamba”.

One hundred and ninety-one years since that battle the tools of revolution have changed. This time instead of swords, the people of Riobamba used tomatoes – plenty of overripe and rotten tomatoes – to coat the still-active Mayor red with shame during the independence parade. Salazar broke with over a century´s tradition by not participating. He was arrested five days later on 26 April.

Considering the state of freedom of expression in Rafael Correa's Ecuador, how many millions of dollars have to go missing before its journalists can do their jobs without fear of reprisals? Now have a definitive figure: unlucky number 13.

On Monday the March of Dignity was organised over social networks. Numbering in the thousands, the march was televised across the country and livestreamed by La Prensa. The citizens demanded an investigation into the use of public funds by every member of the municipal government. Their demands were met.

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