Authoritarian regimes have long had a complicated relationship with media and communications technologies. The Unfreedom Monitor is a Global Voices Advox research initiative examining the growing phenomenon of networked or digital authoritarianism. This extract from the report on Ecuador, from the series of reports to come out of the research under the Unfreedom Monitor. Read the full report here. This report was translated from Spanish. You can see the original here.
The report’s three research topics, seen through the lens of digital authoritarianism, reveal practices that could affect democratic life in Ecuador. Although there was harassment and persecution during Correa’s decade (2007–2017), narrowing the data to Correa’s specific political ideology may hamper the understanding and analysis of the Ecuadorian context. In other words, viewing Ecuador in terms of a political binarism between authoritarianism and democracy will possibly prevent us, in post-Correa times, from observing anti-democratic and regressive practices still at play in the country. This is what is happening to press freedom and freedom of expression.
Under the government of Rafael Correa, punitive measures were used systematically against the privately-owned press, and there were even emblematic prosecution cases that were later dealt with by international courts such as the El Universo case. However, Fundamedios and Fundación Periodistas Sin Cadenas continue to report that, even with Correa out of power, the Ecuadorian State continues to be journalists’ main aggressor. Therefore, it is vital to keep asking questions and not let the debate die with Correa out of power.
Correa’s Communication Law, which went through profound modifications, showcases Ecuador’s political black-or-white thinking. The law was indeed used against journalists and the media, but when it was dismantled, it led to a problematic dichotomy between having more state or more self-regulated media. The latter eventually gained ground in the first year of Guillermo Lasso’s government. Also, other issues such as affirmative measures for community-led media, the role of public media, the distribution of frequencies of the radio electric spectrum, the broadcasting of intercultural content, all of which are needed to address communications as a whole, have been overshadowed. These aspects need to be discussed in the public eye in times of freedom and democracy (what Ecuador is at the moment, according to some politicians), all the while adopting a different approach from the praxis and discourse of the Correa government.
In addition, Correa’s administration and supporters heavily exploited social media and websites to position pro-government content, especially since these platforms have become more and more important in the last 15 years, which correspond to our period of study. But these tactics became more agile and prominent, becoming fully fledged systematic inauthentic campaigns, especially during campaign periods in 2017 and 2021.
These campaigns were particularly observable during Moreno’s government. It became evident that post-Correa governments picked up on the use of troll accounts, dubious social media campaigns, and other manipulative tactics. These strategies, which often include disinformation, obscure public debates. As a result, Ecuadorian media have partnered to promote factchecked content and some journalists have specialised in identifying the modus operandi of internet campaigns.
Additionally, Moreno’s government has resorted to old Correista practices by going after media outlets for allegedly disseminating copyrighted content. In this case, Moreno’s government did not need a company like Ares Rights, which operated in the name of high officials under Correa (although they deny it): Moreno’s people handled it themselves.
Organisations such as Freedom House have raised serious concerns about these moves as they affect press freedom and freedom of expression. Freedom House also warned about the use of mass surveillance technologies that can violate people’s rights by indiscriminately collecting personal data. This concern becomes even more serious as Ecuador does not have clear and precise regulations on the use and purchase of such devices. Moreno used invasive technology during the pandemic, and, according to Access Now, there were at least two internet blackouts during the October 2019 demonstrations. Access Now writes that internet blackouts happen when governments intentionally disrupt the internet, and included Ecuador, for the first time, in the world list of internet shutdowns.
In times of crisis, governments can use technology without stating their intentions and also tend to make generalist speeches that leave the door open to questionable behaviour. During Correa’s administration, the then-National Intelligence Service, Senain, would use video surveillance or malware to spy on journalists, opposition politicians, and social organisations. However, this behaviour did not affect the government’s popularity and it did not open serious and urgent investigations, even though international organisations talked about it.
Today, political espionage may be happening through video surveillance cameras, now installed nationwide and administered by the ECU 911 system. In 2019, the New York Times revealed that the cameras’ coverage was connected to the Strategic Intelligence Center. This happened during Correa’s time and continued under Moreno’s administration. However, President Moreno said that such intelligence operations against citizens or politicians were no longer carried out under his government and criticised his former president, Rafael Correa.
Access Now conducted research on the use and purchase of these surveillance technologies in Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil. For the Ecuadorian case, the researchers revealed that the discourse regarding video surveillance with facial recognition is ambiguous. Officials of the Ecuadorian emergency response system (ECU911) “denied having cameras with facial recognition capabilities, but multiple official announcements indicate otherwise,” Access Now researchers wrote in a 2021 report. Also, there is not enough regulation about the purchase and use of this equipment. The Ecuadorian State generally buys it from Axis (Sweden), Hikvision (China) and Verint (Israel and USA).
In short, Ecuador features practices that fall within the scope of digital authoritarianism. They are not exclusive to governments with specific ideological characteristics.
In the last 15 years, Correism has been a political movement that has generated mixed opinions and led to Ecuador’s most emblematic cases of surveillance, repression and manipulation. However, the lack of public debate and the prevailing narrative about the recovery of freedoms and democracy may create the illusion that Ecuador’s problems have been solved.
Read the full report here.