Explained: Ecuador’s state of emergency and free expression

President Daniel Noboa declared a 60-day state of emergency in Ecuador on Monday after Adolfo Macías, a notorious gang leader commonly known as Fito, escaped from prison and prompted a wave of violence in the state. Since then, armed gunmen have stormed a TV station in the city of Guayaquil during a live broadcast, and Noboa has issued a further decree declaring war on armed gangs. While not the first time a state of emergency has been called, this latest could be a watershed moment for a once-peaceful state which has spiralled into cartel-related violence in recent years. Here’s what you need to know:

Who is Fito?

Adolfo Macías, known as Fito, is the leader of an Ecuadorian gang called Los Choneros, which authorities have linked to extortion, murder and drug trafficking. They have been accused of controlling the country’s main prisons and are suspected to have played a role in the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio last year.

Fito himself was convicted of drug trafficking, murder and organised crime in 2011 and sentenced to 34 years in prison. He was scheduled on Sunday to be transferred to a maximum security facility but was instead discovered missing from his cell.

Why have they declared a state of emergency?

Following Fito’s escape, there was a wave of jail riots and escapes, which authorities blamed on criminal gangs. Riots broke out in at least six jails, with 150 or more guards and other staff taken hostage by prisoners.

Since the state of emergency was declared, at least 10 people have been killed in attacks linked to criminal gangs, seven police officers were kidnapped and nearly 40 inmates have broken out of a prison in Riobamba, a city in the country’s centre.

What does a state of emergency mean?

Under a state of emergency, the military can be mobilised and deployed into prisons, where much of the violence has sprung from, and onto the streets. A nightly curfew has also been imposed between 11pm and 5am in an attempt to curb violence. It is intended to be in place for 60 days.

The country is no stranger to being in a state of emergency. Previous president Guillermo Lasso often attempted to wrestle back control during times of violence by declaring a state of emergency, without much success. What is new is Fito labelling all the criminal groups “terrorists”. This means the army can now respond to them by using lethal force in the streets, a troubling twist.

What has the president said?

President Daniel Noboa, who was elected in November after running a campaign centred on tackling organised crime, said upon announcing the state of emergency: “We will not negotiate with terrorists and we will not rest until we have restored peace.”

Following the storming of Ecuadorian TV station TC Television by an armed gang on Tuesday, Noboa issued a further decree declaring war on armed gangs, stating that there was an “internal armed conflict” and calling upon the Ecuadorian military to “neutralise” the factions “within the bounds of international humanitarian law”.

What does this mean for freedoms in the country?

There is the obvious issue related to curfews, which are very direct curtailments of people’s freedom of movements. There are also the concerns that leaders can use extreme situations to seize rights. Beyond these concerns are those related to the factors that have given rise to the current situation: the state of emergency in Ecuador comes as a result of years of escalating violence and organised crime. In their 2023 Freedom in the World report, Freedom House described Ecuador as being in the midst of a “security crisis”, finding that the number of murders in the country in 2023 was more than double the previous year, with most incidents being linked to drug-related gang activity.

Media freedom is a particular issue in the state. RSF’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index found that journalists in Ecuador face hostility, physical danger and self-censorship as a result of the rising power of criminal gangs and drug cartels, and our Index Index categorised the state’s media as ‘significantly narrowed’. Previous murders of journalists Mike Cabrera, Gerardo Delgado and César Vivanco, as well as further death threats and targeted bomb campaigns, emphasise the threat facing media freedom in the country, as does the case of other countries – Mexico, for example, is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists as a result of the drugs trade.

The recent storming of TC Television adds to these concerns, with the channel’s head of news Alina Manrique telling The Associated Press: “All I know is that it’s time to leave this country and go very far away.”

Obituary: Peter R de Vries ‘a tireless and courageous fighter for justice’

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”117066″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Nine days after he was shot multiple times, Dutch crime reporter Peter R de Vries has died of the injuries he sustained, his family announced on Thursday afternoon. Peter will be remembered not only for his investigations and stories, but also for the way he stood in solidarity with crime victims, deeply motivated to help them find justice. It is widely believed that his decision to act as the confidant of a crown witness in a big organised crime trial was the reason for his murder.

Reactions to De Vries’s death have started to pour in. RTL, the station that broadcasts the daily news show RTL Boulevard, in which De Vries had appeared on the day he was attacked, said:  “Peter’s influence remains stronger than any act of hate can ever be. We will continue to speak freely about wrongs and injustice in society, like he did his whole life.” The Dutch Association of Editors-in-Chief said: “Peter R de Vries was an icon of Dutch journalism and an incredible support for many people. It is intensly sad that he is no longer among us. With Peter, we lost an tireless and courageous fighter for justice.”

Many victims of crimes he investigated and solved expressed their sadness over De Vries’ death.

The crime beat

De Vries started his career in 1978 as a trainee-journalist at De Telegraaf, the biggest newspaper in the Netherlands. He started using the R of his second name Rudolf to distinguish himself from a colleague with the same name. Crime journalism wasn’t really a beat yet, but he took it up and soon published his first story about a murder.

He became more famous in 1983, when he reported about the kidnapping of beer magnate Freddy Heineken. The book he published about the kidnapping a few years later remained the bestselling true crime book in the Netherlands for years.

He left the paper within a year to become the editor-in-chief of the weekly Aktueel, which he soon turned into a crime magazine. After that, he switched to TV, although he always continued to write as well.

In the early 1990s, he went freelance and started the weekly TV show ‘Peter R de Vries, crime journalist’. An episode in 2008 brought international fame: he used an undercover reporter to trigger Joran van der Sloot, a suspect in the disappearance of US teenager Natalee Holloway on the Caribbean island of Aruba, into confessing. He won an Emmy Award for it.

Another one of De Vries’s investigations revealed one of the biggest errors of judgement in Dutch judicial history: two brothers were convicted of murder, but De Vries’ investigations lead to a re-trial and acquittal, after which the real murderer could be apprehended.

Apart from his investigation into the Heineken kidnapping, De Vries was not known for reporting organised crime. He mostly focused on cold cases, deceit and scams, standing beside the victims and often confronting perpetrators in front of the camera. Him being there carrying out his own investigations with a thorough knowledge of both the criminal world and the justice system became a fact of life for both police and prosecutors, who were relentlessly held to account by De Vries as well.

Looking in the mirror

Soon after the attack on De Vries’s life last week, two suspects were arrested: a 21-year old man from Rotterdam and a 35-year old man from Poland. Although the police investigation into the murder continues, it is assumed that they were hired by suspects in the so-called Marengo case, which revolves around an extensive, exceptionally violent drugs gang, lead by Redouan Taghi, who was arrested in 2019. Peter R de Vries was the confidant of the Crown witness in the case, Nabil B.

In an interview with monthly magazine Vrij Nederland, De Vries explained: “I couldn’t have looked at myself in the mirror anymore if I had refused his request. I hold the police and the prosecutor to account and I couldn’t do that if I recoiled from requests for help myself, even if they involved risks.”

The risk was clear: in 2018, Nabil B’s brother was murdered by Taghi’s men. A year later, Derk Wiersum, Nabil B’s lawyer, was murdered. To be able to get access to his client, he gave up his position in the law office of his son Royce, where he was director and advisor.

In the last couple of years, Peter R de Vries became increasingly vocal about social issues in the Netherlands, speaking up for the rights of refugees and against racism. Even though he was respected and popular in the Netherlands, this stance triggered a flood of hate and threats against him like never before, he said.

In 2016, he won an award for speaking out against racism and inequality with ‘courage and nerve, with arguments and substance and without fear’ – which sums up De Vries quite accurately.

Peter R de Vries was 64 years old. He leaves behind a partner and two children.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Attempted murder of Dutch crime reporter Peter R de Vries “a slippery slope of violence”

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”117066″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Dutch crime journalist Peter R de Vries is fighting for his life in a hospital in Amsterdam, after he was shot in the head on Tuesday evening. He had just left the studio of a TV show to which he is a regular contributor. Two suspects have been arrested.

De Vries is one of the best-known journalists in the Netherlands and is recognised for his deep commitment to the victims of the crimes he investigates. Tenacious like a pitbull, he pursues their stories to deliver justice.

He doesn’t shy away from crossing the boundaries of journalism either: he recently started a crowdfunding campaign to raise one million euros to be used as tip money to help solve a cold case of a missing student dating back to 1983.

The attempt on his life is likely to be connected to another step he took away from journalism: he became the confidant of Nabil B., a Crown witness in a trial against an exceptionally violent drugs gang. Although police haven’t commented on the attempted murder yet, few doubt that this is the context in which it needs to be placed.

In an interview with Index on Censorship, De Vries’ colleague Gerlof Leistra, a crime reporter for weekly EW Magazine for more than 30 years, bluntly stated: “This murder attempt is not an attack on press freedom and is not related to journalism.”

Some may question this view; investigative journalists have often pushed at the boundaries in order to secure the story.

Leistra said he has always respected De Vries as a colleague, and pointed out that De Vries never focuses on organised crime in his journalistic investigations. Leistra said: “With his stories and book about the Heineken abduction and murder in 1983 as an exception, he focused on cold cases, deceit, scams. He’s a fantastic man, who could get genuinely wound up about an unjust parking ticket for an old lady. He crossed a journalistic line though when he became Nabil B.’s confidant.”

To be accepted as such by the authorities and get access to his client, De Vries became an employee of the lawyer’s office that represented the Crown witness. It was a clear risk.

The so-called Marengo trial revolves around one of the most violent organised crime organisations ever uncovered in the Netherlands. On trial are the gang’s leader Ridouan Taghi and more than a dozen of his accomplices.

The pursuit of the gang has already led to the murder of others connected with the case. In 2018, Nabil B.’s brother was murdered by Taghi’s men. A year later, Derk Wiersum, Nabil B.’s lawyer, was also murdered. Despite the risk, De Vries refused personal protection.

In a recent interview with magazine Vrij Nederland, De Vries said: “I’m not a scared person, but Nabil’s brother and his previous lawyer were murdered so you don’t have to be hysterical to think something may happen. That’s part of the job. A crime reporter who thinks ‘it’s all getting a bit too intense now’ when the going gets tough, should instead work for Libelle,” referring to a weekly women’s magazine.

Crime journalist Leistra said that the murder attempt is an attack on the rechtsstaat, the system of legal institutions that upholds and protects the state of law. Thomas Bruning, general secretary of the Dutch Journalists Union (NVJ) agrees in part. He told Index on Censorship: “We have to nuance the image of this murder attempt being about press freedom only. Nevertheless, for his colleagues, this is an attack on one of them, and it creates a chilling climate.”

This climate has become colder in the last couple of years. Research by the NVJ has shown that more journalists in the Netherlands are getting targeted verbally or physically for their work. National broadcaster NOS last year decided not to use vans with its logo any more because it is increasingly triggering agression.

On Twitter, Dutch Member of Parliament Geert Wilders recently called journalists ‘scum’.

Bruning said: “Criminals aren’t triggered by that of course, but this all complicates the role of journalists in society. There have been threats against journalists, and now one such threat was put into practice.”

This is also what Bruning discussed with the authorities this week during a meeting with Justice Minister Ferd Grapperhaus.

He said: “It’s positive that two suspects have been arrested. The authorities do take this seriously so I don’t think we can draw a parallel with murders of journalists elesewhere in Europe.”

Bruning was referring to the murders of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta in 2017 and Ján Kuciak in Slovakia in 2018, which laid bare corruption within the state.

Nevertheless, Bruning sees a development to which he drew Grapperhaus’s attention. He said: “Before, criminals killed each other, then they murdered a lawyer, now an attempted murder of a journalist for, most likely, his role in a trial. Who knows, maybe the next target is a journalist who only reports about crime. It’s a slippery slope.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Mafia versus the media: Italian journalists face upsurge in threats and intimidation


Italian journalist Paolo Borrometi.

Italian journalist Paolo Borrometi was forced to move to Rome from Sicily because of threats he was receiving connected with his reporting on organised crime. Borrometi’s story is far from unique. He is one of the 20 journalists currently under police escort in Italy.

In May 2014, Borrometi was beaten by two hooded men near his home after he asked citizens to report any relevant information to investigators about a two-year-old murder. The assault did not deter his reporting on organised crime, nor did a vandalism incident in which the front door of his parent’s home was destroyed in an arson attack.

Despite being forced to relocate to Rome for security reasons, Borrometi’s work uncovering mafia activities continued, as did the almost constant intimidation he faced. This summer a group of unidentified people raided his home, stealing computer hard disks and a series of documents related to his investigations.

The Italian Interior Ministry released official figures of the number of journalists under police protection for the first time in June 2017 to highlight the growing phenomenon.

Borrometi works as editor-in-chief of a local webzine, LaSpia.it, and is a contributor to several other media outlets as a freelancer. Without a regular salary, he needs to keep publishing to earn a living. Many Italian journalists are in the same position financially. According to Nicola Marini, a board member of the Association of Journalists (Ordine dei Giornalisti), which monitors the ethical conduct of journalists, eight out of ten Italian journalists earn less than €10,000 per year.

Beppe Giulietti, the president of the Italian journalists’ trade union FNSI, recounted a conversation he had with Borrometi after the interior ministry decided to put him under escort: “He was worried this situation could interfere with his job.” For freelance reporters a mafia threat does not just affect personal safety, it creates a serious obstacle to performing their jobs. Conducting a simple interview becomes a lot harder when the reporter is followed by a group of policemen. But without them, Borrometi’s life would be in serious danger.

“Compared to the past, the current situation for journalists shows fewer mafia killings,” Giulietti told Index on Censorship. “But sometimes physical threats are not necessary.”

Indeed the economic situation for Italian journalists is harsh and, as Giulietti said, “a defamation lawsuit could be as lethal as a bullet”. Many journalists stop working on investigations because of the risk of lawsuits. If they were sued they wouldn’t be able to afford the economic risks. The result is self-censorship.

Many lawsuits have no legal basis. The Italian permanent observatory on threats to journalists, Ossigeno, estimates that one-third of defamation claims in Italy originate from allegedly mafia-connected people or lobbies.

These cases are often civil and the plaintiff demands enormous amounts of money even though the claim is created as a pretext and the alleged damage is minimal. Quite often the aim is only to intimidate.

The financial fragility of journalists has led to a phenomenon that Alberto Spampinato, president of Ossigeno, calls “the Italian paradox”. Italy has a long history of journalists killed by mafia-affiliated killers, especially during the late 1980s and 1990s. This situation brings growing attention to the link between freedom of information and organised crime.

After an initially strong reaction from the public, things usually turn silent. Ossigeno, which was founded in 2007 after three journalists and writers – Roberto Saviano, Lirio Abbate and Rosaria Capacchione – were put under police escort, aims to put a continuous spotlight on threats to journalists. The Italian public is aware of the problem but politicians are not reactive, according to both Spampinato and Giulietti. Freedom of information, especially related to the nexus between organised crime, politics and corruption is constantly under siege.

The Italian parliament is currently discussing a new law to avoid the complete transcriptions of the intercepted conversations, “but no one is taking care of the lawsuits based on weak grounds which are only made to intimidate journalists (in Italian defined as “querela temeraria”), although the trade union has already highlighted this problem,” Giulietti said.  The president of the journalists’ trade union wants to stress how politicians are focused only in amending the system not to publish news that could affect them, rather than amending a concrete vulnus in freedom of journalists.  

According to the latest Ossigeno report, reporting on organised crime is harder for people who live in remote places. Local journalists often feel pressure from local officials and criminal syndicated, Spampinato explained.

For example, in Rho, a small town in the outskirts of Milan, the newsroom of the local newspaper, Settegiorni, was vandalised by a group of unknown people three times in three months, the latest incident occurring on 3 September. The newspaper has been working on an investigation about the presence of the criminal syndicate ‘Ndrangheta in Rho, according to editor-in-chief Angelo Baiguini.

Though politicians are slow to act, some parts of the Italian parliament are monitoring the situation. The Parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission set up a Committee on Mafia, Journalism and Media. In August 2015 the Committee highlighted that there are southern Italian regions where media publishers have an “opaque management”, involved in judiciary case, even for alleged external support to mafia syndications. Obviously they are willing to stop muckrakers digging into their businesses.

Up until now, there have been no solutions to this problem from a legal perspective. This leaves many good reporters at risk and makes in-depth reporting about organised crime ever more difficult. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1505821805138-929619f7-ec4b-9″ taxonomies=”193, 6564″][/vc_column][/vc_row]