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In Ecuador, a Magazine’s Death Comes Amid Questions

QUITO, Ecuador — Their faces were long, and so was the night. In the offices of Ecuador’s only weekly newsmagazine, the small staff of about a dozen people struggled to produce a final issue, even as locksmiths changed the locks on the doors.

The closing had been announced only a day earlier. It came as a surprise. The staff members were especially bitter because they had been told there was no money to pay their severance packages, so they split their time between trying to finish the last issue and filling out government forms to demand the money they were owed.

Frustrated that the magazine’s administration had apparently taken away access to some computer servers needed for the final issue, Juan Carlos Calderón, the bespectacled editor with a salt-and-pepper goatee, who was dressed in a black shirt and blue jeans, suddenly stalked into the room and shouted: “For dignity’s sake! Let’s go! We can’t do our work!”

No one paid him any mind. After a moment he stormed out again.

At one point the staff decamped to a side room to have a group picture taken, each person holding a sign in front of his mouth that said “fired.”

In the end, though, the magazine, Vanguardia, died unceremoniously, shutting its doors at the end of last month without releasing a farewell issue.

But the cause of death is much in dispute.

The owner said the country’s contentious new news media law had killed the magazine by creating restrictions that threatened to strangle a free press. The magazine’s last issue, due out on July 1, never appeared in print.

President Rafael Correa, whose government was often the subject of critical coverage in the magazine, gloated over the corpse, saying it had starved to death: no one read it, he said, and the money ran out.

But the magazine’s reporters and editors had a different opinion: it died of fear.

“It’s illogical to think that you have to quit instead of fight,” said Mr. Calderón, 50, Vanguardia’s editor. “This reflects fear, and it reflects impotence.”

Santiago Preckler, 72, a copy editor who worked at the magazine for almost all of the eight years of its existence, was more blunt. Yes, he said, the new law would make it much harder to publish hard-hitting journalism, but the owner’s decision to silence the magazine was the wrong response.

“He’s a coward,” Mr. Preckler said.

The owner and president is Francisco Vivanco, who also operates a daily newspaper, La Hora, which continues to publish. A repeated target of Mr. Correa’s televised excoriations of the media, Mr. Vivanco prepared a statement for Vanguardia’s final issue with a slashing criticism of the new law, which the president signed in June.

“We cannot accept in silence that the government should determine the topics and agendas that we can cover,” Mr. Vivanco wrote, rejecting the idea that “all freedom of information should be regulated, inspected and that a superintendent chosen by the president should stand as executioner to penalize.”

Mr. Correa had long pushed for a law regulating the media, but he was not able to pass it until last month, shortly after beginning a new term in which his party holds a majority in the National Assembly for the first time. The president and his supporters say the new law will force a biased news media, controlled by a small elite, to be more fair and accurate.

Beyond penalties for publishing or broadcasting material that harms a person’s reputation or honor, the law prohibits something called media lynching, which it defines as the publication of material intended to reduce someone’s prestige or credibility.

It also sets restrictions on the coverage of court cases, creates government bodies with wide powers to regulate and penalize journalists, and bans the publication of personal communications, including e-mails and conversations.

Critics say the restrictions stifle investigative journalism, patently undermining Mr. Correa’s recent posture as a defender of whistle-blowers and anti-secrecy crusaders. Mr. Correa has sheltered Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, for more than a year in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London and offered to consider an asylum request from Edward J. Snowden, the fugitive American intelligence contractor wanted by the United States.

But in an interview, Mr. Correa said he was interested in making journalists more accountable, and he strongly dismissed Mr. Vivanco’s contention that the law alone had forced the magazine to shut down.

“That is a lie,” Mr. Correa said.

The president said the magazine had serious financial problems. And he accused it of lying to advertisers about its circulation, a fraud he said would have been revealed under a provision in the media law that authorizes the government to carry out circulation audits. He said that the magazine claimed its circulation was around 15,000, but that it was actually below 5,000.

“This is not honest journalism,” Mr. Correa said.

In his regular Saturday television program on June 29, Mr. Correa discussed the magazine’s demise. The magazine’s circulation was so small the owners did not even read it, he said. And while the media law alone was not responsible for the weekly’s closing, he said, it was “the cherry on the cake, the coup de grâce,” because it would have revealed the magazine’s true circulation numbers.

He added that he sympathized with the workers who would lose their jobs.

Mr. Correa regularly rails at the press, accusing it of being biased against him and urging his followers not to read newspapers. He has frequently disputed television news reports and complained to newspapers about articles, headlines or, in at least one case, a cartoon, demanding corrections. Critics say he has created a climate in which journalists feel intimidated.

Last year, Mr. Correa won a libel lawsuit against a newspaper, El Universo, that included a $42 million judgment and could have sent a columnist and three executives at the paper to jail, until he pardoned them and forgave the fine.

He also sued Mr. Calderón, the editor of Vanguardia, and another journalist for a book they had written about Mr. Correa’s older brother, Fabricio Correa, and his involvement in government contracts. A judge ordered the defendants to pay Mr. Correa $2 million, but the president agreed last year to drop that legal action as well and said they would not have to pay.

On the last Friday night of June, as Vanguardia’s crestfallen staff tried to put out one more issue, the lugubrious scene felt like a wake.

But the staff kept working. “I will be satisfied that I did my job,” said Fernanda Grijalva, 27, who sat at her computer laying out pages.

At about 3 a.m. the staff finally put the last issue to bed. But Mr. Calderón said the company had not printed the magazine. However, staff members posted a digital version online, with a picture of Mr. Snowden on its cover.

Mr. Calderón said some of the magazine’s hardest-hitting articles could not have been published under the new law. But he said it was the media’s obligation to fight back. Some elements in the law could be used in favor of journalists, he said, citing language establishing free access to information and a provision that a journalist cannot be required to reveal his sources.

“Vanguardia represented a breath of air in an environment that was becoming more and more asphyxiating, where nearly the totality of media outlets have stopped doing investigative journalism,” Mr. Calderón said. With the silencing of Vanguardia, he said, “the country loses the possibility of having a different version than the official version.”

In the interview, Mr. Correa said the closing of Vanguardia was an example of how the new law would make the media better. “That the bad press should disappear, of course that’s good for society,” he said. “The more good press there is the better.”

And who decides which press is good and which is bad?

“Society, through this law,” Mr. Correa said. “Telling the truth, that’s the good press. Lies, that’s the bad press. There’s no room for confusion there.”

By William Neuman-New York Times, July 8, 2013


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