Ecuador is trying to shut down one of its main press freedom groups

Ecuador has announced a move to shut down the Andean Foundation for the Social Observation and Study of Media, better known as Fundamedios, the country’s main organization dedicated to monitoring threats to freedom of expression. The National Communications Secretariat (Secom) alleges that the group has not complied with a law requiring civil society organizations to remain politically neutral.

In a 70-page letter to Fundamedios, Secom claimed the group had “disseminated messages, alerts and essays with indisputable political overtones.” Fundamedios representatives and other free-speech advocates, however, criticized the government’s action, which they say points to a broader campaign to silence critical voices.

Fundamedios responded by calling Secom’s decision “unconstitutional and illegal.” The group has also formally appealed the measure. “Our reaction is that this is a process that, legally and from a perspective of logic and rationality, has neither head nor tail,” Fundamedios executive director César Ricuarte told local media.

The government’s move has sparked concern from human rights groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX). The US State Department also announced that it was “very concerned about the increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of association in Ecuador.”

Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa has previously claimed that Fundamedios is part of a “smear campaign” against his administration, citing the group’s work as an example of US “interventionism” in the country. Other critics of Fundamedios have pointed out that the organization has received funding from the US Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy.

But in an email the watchdog group Freedom House called these criticisms “an unsubstantiated justification for [Correa’s] broader campaign to silence opinions that he disagrees with.” The organization reported earlier this year that Ecuador has experienced a major decline in press freedom since 2010, and that Correa’s administration has “continually disparaged and harassed critical media outlets and journalists, creating an environment of aggression toward the media sector and the journalistic profession.”

Official documents recently obtained by The Guardian showed that Ecuador’s spy service engaged in a “pattern of targeting Correa’s intellectual and political opponents in the media, indigenous movements and parliament.” And earlier this year British comedian John Oliver ignited a public spat with Correa after he lampooned the president’s thin-skinned attitude toward criticism, including his creation of a “troll army” to fight back against online detractors.

During the recent controversy, media outlets tied to the Ecuadoran government incorrectly reported that the National Journalists Federation (Fenape) supported the move to shut down Fundamedios. But the reports were based on false social media posts and statements from imposters claiming to represent Fenape.

In a public statement, Fenape condemned the attempts to appropriate its name, and voiced its support for Fundamedios. “Freedom of expression is a fundamental right and the issue of this decision by Secom violates the very existence of this right,” said the group’s president Susana Piedra.

Correa’s government has faced mass protests in recent weeks and months over issues including his administration’s increasing restrictions on free speech, his attempt to extend his term in office, and his unpopular economic and environmental policies. Correa has previously blamed U.S. intelligence services for provoking the protests. Demonstrators have accused police of using excessive force.

Despite Correa’s poor record on press freedom issues, his administration has made some efforts to brand itself as a defender of free speech. Since 2012, Ecuador has provided asylum in its London embassy to WikiLeaks founder and government transparency advocate Julian Assange. In 2013 – the same year a controversial communications law came into effect – Correa’s government hosted an “Internet freedom forum” that Buzzfeed reported was “attended by luminaries of the global transparency community associated with WikiLeaks and other groups.”

However, many observers say the decision to dissolve Fundamedios is politically motivated, and represents a pattern of intimidation against dissenting voices. “Not content with persecuting, harassing, fining, and verbally abusing critics in the privately owned press, the Ecuadoran government is now threatening to dissolve the leading press freedom organization,” said CPJ Americas Senior Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría in a statement.

Secom head Fernando Alvarado told CPJ he would not comment on the case before its final resolution. President Correa has not commented publicly on the case, but in recent days he has posted several Twitter messages denouncing some elements of the press, as well as “violent minorities” he claims are seeking to undermine his government.

In response to a request for comment, the Ecuadoran embassy in the United States provided a statement from Secom acknowledging Fundamedios’ “legitimate right to explanation and justification of its actions,” and stating that the agency “will issue its resolution” regarding Fundamedios’ appeal “under the current legal system and in strict support for the Rule of Law.”

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