The murder of three reporters in 2018 marked a milestone in the escalation of crime in Ecuador. Five years later, violence at the hands of criminal organizations and a lack of government protection are pushing many to self-censor or leave the country, creating serious information gaps. These are their stories.

Text: Ronna Rísquez  / Editing: Josefina Salomón / Ilustration: Sergio Ortiz Borbolla

Karol Noroña fled Ecuador on 23 March 2023, after she was told she was going to be murdered. Since then, four other journalists followed her steps after being threatened by criminal organizations or pressured by the government. Their cases show the less visible impact of the actions of armed groups in Ecuador, and the challenges that the next authorities will face in guaranteeing freedom of expression.

Noroña’s work covering the actions of criminal groups that control prisons in Ecuador made her many enemies. Several of her sources warned her that the order was to kill her, so the journalist, who works for the digital media outlet GK, decided leaving the country was the safest option. 

She was not the only one who was left with no choice but to flee. Since her departure until mid-August 2023, at least four other journalists have been forced to leave Ecuador to protect their lives after publishing investigations exposing corruption or collusion between state institutions and organized crime.

In April, the Journalists Without Chains Foundation (Fundación Periodistas Sin Cadenas), an organization that promotes freedom of expression in Ecuador reported on the story of a journalist that was forced to leave the country in April after receiving death threats as a result of her work – they withheld the reporter’s identity for security reasons. 

“The victim has received repeated threats which have been brought to the attention of the Attorney General’s Office, the Communication Council, the Ministry of the Interior and the General Secretariat of Communication of the Presidency for the past eight months. However, none of these institutions or their various authorities have attended to his case…”, a statement by the organization says.

In another case, on 21 July, the journalists and founders of the digital media La Posta, Andersson Boscán and Mónica Velásquez, left the country. They were threatened after uncovering a corruption scheme allegedly involving a relative of President Guillermo Lasso and crime organizations. 

Another journalist who left Ecuador after receiving threats and reporting a life-threatening attack is Lissette Ormaza. On 20 June, Ormaza was driving from her home in La Concordia to the northwester city of Santo Domingo when a pickup truck without a number plate caused her to lose control of her vehicle, which overturned on the side of the road, according to a report published by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Two days later, Ormaza received a message on her Facebook account from a user she did not know, saying: “Now you know what we are capable of. Your journalism doesn’t scare us and next time, it won’t be an accident, it will be a bullet in the middle of your forehead.”

The attack and threat followed a report in which the journalist alleged that a bus accident on 28 May in which two passengers died had been caused by faulty brakes on the vehicle, which had not been checked by the bus company.

Attacks against journalists have also included explosive material being sent to their offices with at least 96 incidents reported in the first four months of 2023, according to Fundamedios, a non-governmental organization that documents attacks against the media. 

The situation is getting worse. Ecuador dropped 12 places in the Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders in 2023, compared to 2022. The country went from being 68th to 80th of the 180 countries analysed. 

Government pressure, self-censorship and assassinations 

For many experts, including Noroña, who has specialized in covering organized crime, the most telling sign about the risk of practising journalism in Ecuador took place in 2018. “It is important to remember the murder of my journalist friends Javier (Ortega), Paúl (Rivas) and Efraín (Segarra), as well as other civilians and military personnel between March and April of that year,” said the reporter, who at the time worked for the newspaper El Comercio, alongside the murdered journalists. 

The reporters were kidnapped and killed by a group of dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia  – FARC) led by Walter Patricio Arizala, alias “Guacho”, while they were conducting an investigation in the province of Esmeraldas, on the border between Ecuador and Colombia. “Despite the fact that it was an emblematic case, no special investigation took place. There was a cover-up by both former presidents (Lenín Moreno and Gustavo Duque) from Ecuador and Colombia,” Noroña told In.Visibles. 

“The kidnapping and murder of the journalists of the newspaper El Comercio, and the negotiations of the governments that sought their release, remain full of contradictions, gaps and unanswered questions”, concluded media outlet La Liga contra el Silencio after a team of journalists investigated the facts. Although there were no clear answers, it did expose the authorities’ negligence and a series of institutional failures, which persist today. Noroña pointed out that the case files have not been declassified and will remain confidential for another five years. 

Since then, lack of government transparency about the case and the lack of institutional will to clarify this crime and protect journalists have been the norm. A year after the murders, the government of President Moreno created the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, which seemed to recognise the need to create a body to ensure the safety of journalists. But in 2020, the media outlet GK questioned its effectiveness and reported that it had only been activated on two occasions, despite the fact that in the same period 115 attacks on journalists were reported. 

“This committee only exists on paper, in practice it has been useless. You don’t have a body to turn to. A journalist who reported eight times was re-victimised and had to leave the country”, said Noroña, a few days after the murder of the presidential candidate and journalist, Fernando Villavicencio. She wants to return to Ecuador, but says she does not have the guarantees to practice journalism. 

“The armed group that threatened me has the power to operate inside and outside prisons. They have criminal armour and state armour, from the judicial system and the police. For me, reporting the issue to the authorities was not an option, the system of protected witnesses in Ecuador is insufficient. In Ecuador there is no guarantee for the exercise of journalism. There is nobody that really cares about what is happening”, the reporter said.

Institutional weakness due to lack of resources and training is another reason that limits the State’s ability to provide security to citizens. As In.Visibles reported, violence has increased to record levels since 2016, with the homicide rate reaching 25.9 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2022. The figure places Ecuador among the most violent countries in Latin America, surpassing Brazil and Mexico. 

A security researcher and consultant working in Ecuador told In.Visibles that in this scenario of violence, the security forces have a series of shortcomings that place them at a disadvantage in the face of organized crime. “They don’t have the necessary weapons, equipment or enough trained officers. That is another problem,” said the expert, who asked that his name is not published for security reasons. 

Journalists are on the front line in this conflict. “There are two central [elements]: a security crisis that exposes journalists to violence, and I say violence in the plural because there is violence of different forms and origins. And on the other hand, this situation occurs at a time of political uncertainty in which it is very important that the different institutions and political parties, who understand their different visions of Ecuador, coincide in identifying this problem and the solutions to resolve it,” Carlos Martínez de la Serna, programme director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) told LatAm Journalism Review.

In this context, the response of some media outlets and journalists to protect themselves from this violence has been self-censorship with some no longer covering topics such as security and organized crime, particularly in border areas with these groups are more active. “Colleagues either have to keep quiet or hand over information to the international media. If it happened to me when I was in Quito, it happened to them (those working in the interior of the country) all the more so,” said reporter Karol Noroña.

Journalists have also again experienced verbal attacks, intimidation and threats of legal action, as they did during the government of President Rafael Correa. Inhibiting themselves from exercising their functions in order to avoid legal action has become one of the media’s defence mechanisms.  

In this thorny and complex scenario, the government of President Lasso presented a new Communication Law in November 2022. The law was announced on the official account of the government’s communications secretariat as “A victory for democracy in Ecuador”.  However, the government has not commented on the situation faced by many reporters, nor has it addressed the complaints of the five exiled journalists. 

Meanwhile, many journalists are seeking their own protection mechanisms: “I want to return. But I try to tell my colleagues that we cannot do it alone. We must articulate ourselves nationally and internationally,” said Noroña.