The Ecuadorian government fined seven media outlets for not covering the opposition’s misconduct, which was deemed a matter of public interest.

In the aftermath of the presidential elections in Ecuador this April, which saw the victory of Lenin Moreno, the government imposed fines on seven media agencies for not disclosing the misconducts of the right-wing opposition candidate, Guillermo Lasso, and his association with offshore tax havens. 

The State Superintendent of Information and Communication (Supercom), sent a fine of US$3,750 to both newspapers agencies, El Comercio, La Hora, Expreso, El Universo and television channels Televicentro, Tele Amazonas and Ecuavisa.

The original story was published on March 15, in the Argentinian newspaper Página 12. The article, ‘Lasso: The Offshore Tycoon’, reported that the presidential candidate was involved in several tax evasion activities in Panama, Delaware, and the Cayman Islands, but the story did not contain any evidence, comments or verifiable sources. The media agencies therefore decided not to report it and later got fined because the story was considered to be of public interest, especially in light of the upcoming elections.

The media has the obligation to cover and spread facts that are in the public interest,” said Ecuador’s regulatory body, Supercom. The body was spurred to act by the country’s controversial media law – introduced in 2013 by President Rafael Correa – which gives full power to the government to sanction media companies.

“It would have been enough to begin an investigation about the Página 12 article and later verify the claims made to then decide whether or not to publish… In this case, the information was withheld from the citizenry, which constitutes pre-censorship,” said Carlos Ochoa, director of Supercom.

According to him, the fines will work as “motivation for the media to improve their journalistic practices.”

However, Fundamedios, an organisation that advocates for freedom of expression, condemned the action as ‘media lynching’.

It is an act of censorship designed to give the government the role of editor of all media, deciding what to publish or not,said Cesar Ricaurte, Director of Fundamedios.

The media companies involved argued that they acted out of Ecuador’s contradictory legislation. Pedro Valverde, a lawyer representing El Universo newspaper, said that the country’s Code of Democracy does not allow the media to publish any content that could work against a certain candidate during the election period. In addition, Article 22 of the Communications Law, states that all information published should be verified, but the information contained in the Argentinian article was not.

The new president Moreno, who will formally be in office from May 24, has already expressed some reservations about the law and its administration. Meanwhile, the news organisations involved will pursue the case legally.