In Ecuador, a Magazine’s Death Comes Amid Questions

from The New York Times..

By William Neuman

July 8, 2013

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.

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