Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy
Freedom of Expression in Ecuador
In the United States Senate
August 2, 2012
Mr. President, several weeks ago I spoke in this chamber about the assault on freedom of expression in Ecuador, where President Correa has sought to silence his critics including the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the Organization of American States.
Last week, these attacks on legitimate expression reached a new height when, according to press reports, Ecuador’s Secretariat of Pueblos, Mireya Cardenas said the government is investigating Fundamedios to determine if the support it receives from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is being used to interfere in “internal political affairs”. She specifically criticized Fundamedios for lodging complaints at the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. She also attacked USAID for supporting sustainable forestry, civil society organizations, and the development of local productive enterprises, which are designed to protect the environment and improve the livelihoods of the Ecuadoran people.
Mr. President, Fundamedios is a respected Ecuadoran nonpartisan organization that seeks to defend freedom of the press at a time when journalists and media organizations in that country are being vilified and threatened by officials of the very government that should be protecting them. It is similar to the conduct we have seen in Russia, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Venezuela, and other countries whose governments mistakenly equate legitimate advocacy by civil society organizations with unlawful political activity, as if Ecuador’s political affairs are the sole province of those who the government approves of.
It is also important to reaffirm the indispensable role of the Inter-American human rights system, which has recently been targeted not only by President Correa, but also by the leaders of other Latin countries with weak and corrupt judicial systems who, in the name of “reform”, seek to limit access to alternative fora for its citizens to obtain justice for abuses by government security forces. It is interesting that these same governments welcome the support of the OAS when it suits them, but campaign to weaken its mandate when it does not.
To make a bad situation worse, President Correa again recently attacked one of Ecuador’s most respected newspapers. A few weeks ago, he said on TV that an editor with El Universo was “sinister.” And on July 28th, he suggested that the editor of El Comercio was “mentally ill” and “unethical”, for what appear to be nothing more than public comments made on the paper’s website by readers who questioned presidential decisions.
On July 31st, members of the police and the labor ministry, reportedly without a warrant, seized several items and information from the offices of the magazine Vanguardia for allegedly violating labor laws. The magazine’s director, Juan Carlos Calderón, said the incident is an attempt to silence the independent press in Ecuador.
For those of us who want closer relations between the United States and other countries in the hemisphere, including Ecuador, and who believe it is everyone’s responsibility to stand up for universal human rights of which freedom of expression is the most cherished, it is disappointing to see the path the Correa government is taking.
This is not about competing political philosophies, party affiliation, or national sovereignty. It is about protecting the right of Ecuadoran journalists and Fundamedios to be free of government interference, and of defending the constitutional rights of all of Ecuador’s citizens. The country’s first constitution, written in 1830, stipulated that “every citizen can express their thoughts and publish them freely through the press.” Its current constitution, just four years old, protects each citizen’s right “to voice one’s opinion and express one’s thinking freely and in all of its forms and manifestations.”
The people of Ecuador have a right to receive uncensored information. Sometimes that information is accurate, sometimes it is not. Everyone in public office knows that. Personal attacks and inflammatory charges by top officials weaken democratic discourse and have no place in a country with a long commitment to civil liberties.