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.”

The women who paid the ultimate price

Wednesday marked International Women’s Day, an opportunity to reflect upon the role of women in society. In the midst of a war in Europe and global economic crisis it is easy to focus on the immediate, on the current existential crisis, but there is an onus on us to remember what is happening further afield.

On Wednesday for International Women’s Day I addressed students on behalf of the Anne Frank Trust. I highlighted the importance of not only telling women’s stories but also the power of amplifying their lived experiences, wherever they may be. Collectively we all made a promise that this week – and I hope in future weeks – we would seek to tell the stories of the women who have made a mark and ensure that the world knows their names.

I seek to deliver on that promise.

I am proud to be the Chief Executive of Index on Censorship, a charity which endeavours to provide a voice to the persecuted, which campaigns for freedom of expression around the world. I work daily with dissidents who risk everything to change their societies and their communities for the better. Men and women. But today I would like to highlight the names of some of those women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in the last year for the supposed “crime” of doing something we take for granted every day – using the human right of freedom of expression.

  • Deborah Samuel – a student brutally murdered in Nigeria after being accused of blasphemy on an academic social media platform.

  • Nokuthula Mabaso – a leading woman human rights defender in South Africa and leader of the eKhenana Commune. She was assassinated outside of her home, in front of her children.

  • Shireen Abu Akleh – a veteran Palestinian-American correspondent for Al Jazeera who was killed while reporting on an Israeli raid in the West Bank.

  • Jhannah Villegas – a local journalist in the Philippines was killed at her home. The police believe this was linked to her work.

  • Francisca Sandoval – a local Chilean journalist was murdered, and several others hurt when gunmen opened fire on a Workers’ Day demonstration.

  • Mahsa Amini  – a name all too familiar to us, as her murder inspired a peaceful revolution which continues to this day. Murdered by the Iranian morality police for “inappropriate attire”.

  • Oksana Baulina – a Russian journalist killed during shelling by Russian forces in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

  • Oksana Haidar – a 54-year-old Ukrainian journalist and blogger better known under the pseudonym “Ruda Pani”, killed by Russian artillery, northeast of Kyiv.

  • Oleksandra Kuvshynova – a Ukrainian producer who was killed outside of Kyiv, while working with Fox News.

  • Petronella Baloyi – a South African land and women human rights defender gunned down while in her home.

  • Yessenia Mollinedo Falconi, a Mexican journalist who was the founder and editor of El Veraz. A crime and security correspondent, she received a death threat a fortnight before she was shot. She was killed alongside her colleague Sheila Johana García Olivera

  • Vira Hyrych – a journalist for Radio Free Europe’s Ukrainian service, killed by Russian shelling.

  • Yeimi Chocué Camayo – an Indigenous women’s rights activist, killed in Columbia when returning to her house.

  • Cielo Rujeles – wife of social leader Sócrates Sevillano, shot and killed alongside her husband in Colombia.

  • Luz Angelina Quijano Poveda – a delegate of the Community Action Board in Punta Betín, Colombia, murdered at her home.

  • Sandra Patricia Montenegro – a PE teacher and social leader was shot and killed in front of her students in Colombia.

  • Melissa Núñez – a transgender activist shot dead by armed men in Honduras.

  • María del Carmen Vázquez – a Mexican activist and member of the Missing Persons of Pénjamo, murdered by two men at her home in. She was looking for her son who disappeared last summer.

  • Blanca Esmeralda Gallardo – activist and member of the Collective Voice of the Missing in Puebla, who was assassinated on the side of the highway in Mexico as she waited for a bus to take her to work. She was searching for her 22-year-old daughter who vanished in 2021.

  • Yermy Chocue Camayo – treasurer of the Chimborazo indigenous reservation in Colombia, and human rights defender, killed as she headed home.

  • Dilia Contreras – an experienced presenter for RCN Radio in Columbia, shot dead in a car alongside her colleague Leiner Montero after covering a festival in a local village.

  • Edilsan Andrade – a Colombian social leader and local politician, shot and killed in the presence of one of her children.

  • Jesusita Moreno, aka Doña Tuta – a human rights activist who defended Afro-Colombian community rights. Facing threats against her life, she was assassinated whilst at her son’s birthday party.

  • Maria Piedad Aguirre – a Colombian social leader who was a defender of black communities, violently murdered with a machete; she was found at home by one of her grandchildren.

  • Elizabeth Mendoza – social leader, was shot and killed in her home in Colombia.  Her husband, son and nephew were also murdered.

  • María José Arciniegas Salinas – a Colombian indigenous human rights defender, assassinated by armed men who said they belonged to the Comandos de la Frontera group.

  • Shaina Vanessa Pretel Gómez – who was known among the LGBTIQ+ community for her activism, including work to establish safe spaces for homeless people and a passion for the arts, was shot dead early in the morning by a suspect on a motorbike.

  • Rosa Elena Celix Guañarita – a Colombian human rights defender was shot while socialising with friends.

  • Mariela Reyes Montenegro – a leader of the Union of Workers and Employees of Public Services was murdered in Colombia.

  • Alba Bermeo Puin – an indigenous leader and environmental defender in Ecuador was murdered when five months pregnant.

  • Mursal Nabizada – a former female member of Afghanistan’s parliament and women’s rights campaigner murdered at her home.

This is not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination. Compiling the names and profiles of women who have been killed as a result of their right to exercise freedom of expression is almost impossible, not least because of the nature of the repressive regimes which too many people live under. But every name represents thousands of others who day in, day out put their lives at risk to speak truth to power. They were mothers, grandmothers, daughters, nieces, granddaughters, sisters, aunts, friends, partners, wives.

To their families, they were the centre of the world. To us, today, their stories bring fear and inspiration in equal measure. They are heroes whose bravery we should all seek to emulate.

Standing up to a global oil giant

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IN FEBRUARY 2011, a court in Ecuador delivered a historic victory for indigenous and rural communities in that country’s Amazon region: a multi-billion-dollar pollution judgment designed to remedy decades of deliberate toxic dumping by global oil company Chevron on indigenous ancestral lands.

I was a member of the international legal team that obtained the judgment after Chevron had insisted the trial take place in Ecuador. Since then, I have been targeted by the company with what can only be described as a vicious retaliation campaign against me and my family – a campaign designed to silence my advocacy and intimidate other human rights lawyers who might think of taking on the fossil fuel giants.

The evidence against Chevron, as found by Ecuador’s courts, was overwhelming. It consisted of 64,000 chemical sampling results reporting extensive oil pollution at hundreds of oil production sites. Billions of gallons of toxic “produced water” were deliberately discharged into rivers and streams that locals relied on for their drinking water, fishing and bathing. Cancer rates in the region have spiked dramatically.

One experienced engineer who had worked on oil operations in dozens of countries told an energy journalist it was the worst oil pollution he had ever seen. When the indigenous people complained, the company’s engineers told them that oil was like milk and that it contained vitamins.

At the time we won the judgment, I was living in Manhattan with my wife and young son in a small apartment. I was travelling to Ecuador on a monthly basis to help the affected communities while maintaining a small law practice.

To keep the litigation going, I helped my clients raise significant funds from supporters and I helped recruit and manage attorneys from around the world who were preparing to enforce the winning judgment. Enforcement of the judgment became necessary after Chevron vowed never to pay and threatened the indigenous peoples who won the case with a “lifetime of litigation” unless they dropped their claims.

Chevron’s counterattack targeting me came swiftly. In 2009, the company had hired a new law firm that broadly advertised a “kill step” strategy to help rescue corporations plagued by scandal from legal liabilities. This primarily involved accusing the lawyers who won a judgment against the firm’s client of “fraud” to distract attention from the company’s wrongdoing. The ultimate goal was to drive lawyers off the case by demonising them and making life so uncomfortable that their careers were at risk; under such a scenario, the victims of the company’s pollution would be left defenceless.

In my case, Chevron lawyers sued me under a civil “racketeering” statute – accusing me of authorising the bribing of a judge in Ecuador. This is something I have not done, nor would I ever do.

The civil lawsuit was crafted by the Chevron lawyers to read like a criminal indictment. When it was filed in New York in 2011, my life was turned upside down. The company claimed the entire case I had been working on in Ecuador since 1993 was “sham” litigation even though Ecuador’s courts had validated the pollution judgment based on voluminous scientific evidence. Chevron also sued me for $60 billion, the largest potential personal liability in US history. When I refused to give up, the company convinced a US judge in 2018 to charge me with criminal contempt of court for appealing an order that I turn over my electronic devices, passwords and confidential case file to the company.

At the time of writing, I have been under house arrest in Manhattan for roughly 600 days on a petty charge that carries a maximum sentence of just 180 days in prison. I am being prosecuted by a Chevron law firm in the name of the public after the charges were rejected by the regular federal prosecutor.

To monitor my whereabouts on a 24/7 basis, the court shackled my left ankle with a GPS monitor. It never comes off — I sleep with it, eat with it and shower with it. It often beeps in the middle of the night when the battery runs low.

In all, Chevron has used the US court system to subject me over the past 10 years to multiple attacks:

  • Chevron paid an Ecuadorian witness at least $2 million. It also flew him and his entire family to the USA where they were settled in a new house. Chevron lawyers then coached this person for 53 days to be its star witness. He testified I approved a bribe of the trial judge in Ecuador. This was the “kill step” in action: I was falsely being accused of a crime to ruin my career and remove me from the case. The witness later recanted much of his testimony, but the judge in the case denied me a jury of my peers and used the testimony to rule the Ecuador judgment was obtained by fraud and that I could not collect my legal fee.

  • Chevron used these so-called findings of fact – findings contradicted by six appellate courts in Ecuador and Canada that rejected the company’s false evidence – to orchestrate the suspension of my licence in New York without a hearing. I later won my post-suspension hearing; the case is currently on appeal.

  • Chevron launched a series of financial attacks against me and my family. Even though the company had denied me a jury (required by law in damages cases), the judge allowed Chevron to impose draconian financial penalties on me to “repay” the company for some of the legal fees it used to prosecute me. The judge also imposed billions of dollars of fines on me for supposedly failing to comply with discovery orders that I had appealed. He also authorised the company to freeze my personal accounts and take my life savings.

  • In the ultimate coup de grace, Chevron convinced the judge to essentially block me from working on the case by issuing an injunction preventing me from helping my clients raise investment funds to help enforce the judgment against Chevron’s assets. The cold reality is that Chevron, which grosses about $250 billion a year, is free to spend what it wants to block enforcement actions brought by the Ecuadorian communities. The indigenous people of Ecuador,nmost of whom cannot afford even bottled water, are barred by US courts from raising money to enforce their judgment. The US court did say they could receive “donations”, which will never be enough to cover the costs.

  • In any criminal contempt case, no person charged with a petty crime in the federal system has served even one day’s pre-trial in-home detention; I have served almost two years without trial.

My trial on the six criminal contempt counts is scheduled for 10 May. All the counts relate to legitimate discovery disputes I had with Chevron that I was litigating at the time the judge charged me criminally. At the time, I was in Canada helping lawyers there enforce the Ecuador judgment.

I am a human rights lawyer who has received significant public support, including from 55 Nobel laureates who have demanded dismissal of the criminal case and my release. Thousands of prominent lawyers around the world, including Harvard professor Charles Nesson and legendary civil rights lawyer Martin Garbus, have rallied on my behalf. Courts around the world have validated the judgment I worked years to help secure. Yet Chevron, working through its 60 law firms and hundreds of lawyers, has effectively weaponised the judicial system in service of its interests to nullify my ability to fully function as an advocate. This has happened in retaliation for our success, not because of any errors along the way.

The victims of this new corporate playbook are the people of Ecuador; its higher purpose is to protect a fossil fuel industry that is destroying our planet from being held accountable under the law. The racketeering is the conspiracy organised by Chevron and its allies not only to “win” the case and extinguish the company’s liability but also to kill off the idea that this type of environmental human rights case can happen again. It is critical that environmental justice lawyers, campaigners and all who believe in free speech stand up for the important principles so central to the proper functioning of a free society that are contained in this saga.

INDEX looks at how Texaco and Chevron became involved in Ecuador and the twists and turns of Steven Donziger’s campaign to get compensation for local people

1964: Texaco begin oil exploration and drilling in Ecuador.

1992: Texaco hand over full control of the oil operation in the country to state-owned oil company PetroEcuador.

1993: Steven Donziger and his team file a suit against Texaco in New York, but Texaco successfully lobby to have the case heard in Ecuador.

1995: A settlement agreement is reached and Texaco agree to help with the clean-up of toxic waste.

1998: The clean-up costs $40 million and Ecuador releases another agreement stating Texaco had met its obligations under the 1998 agreement.

2000: Chevron buy Texaco for around $35 billion.

2003: A US legal team including Steven Donziger sues Texaco on behalf of over 30,000 Ecuadoreans, claiming that between from 1971 to 1992, Texaco dumped four million gallons of toxic wastewater per day.

2011: In February, Chevron sues Donziger and co. under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), alleging extortion.

The original suit, the monetary claims of which were dropped before the trial, saw Chevron seeking $60 billion in damages.

2011: An Ecuadorean court gives a judgment for Chevron to pay $18 billion, which is later raised to $19 billion, to plaintiffs. Chevron appeal the decision.

2013: Ecuador’s Supreme Court upholds the decision but halves the damages to $9.5 billion.

2014: US District Judge Lewis Kaplan rules the decision to be tainted and accuses Donziger of perverting the course of justice. Six other courts rule the decision to be valid. Much of the decision was based on the testimony of former Ecuador judge Alberto Guerra, who claimed there was bribery involved in the 2011 judgement. Parts of this testimony have since been retracted.

2018: Donziger is suspended from practising as an attorney.

2019: Kaplan charges Donziger with contempt of court and orders him to pay $3.4 million in attorney fees.

2020: In August, Donziger is disbarred. 29 Nobel laureates condemn alleged judicial harassment by Chevron.

SEAN COMEY, senior corporate adviser, Chevron Corporation, sent Index this response

Steven Donziger continues to try to shift attention away from the facts. In his own words, “we need to make facts that help us and the facts we need don’t always exist”.

The facts are that Donziger has been disbarred because of a pattern of illegal activity related to the case. Decisions by courts in the USA, Argentina, Brazil, Canada and Gibraltar and an international tribunal in The Hague confirm that the fraudulent Ecuadorian judgment should be unenforceable in any court that respects the rule of law. The US District Court for the Southern District of New York held that the judgment against Chevron was the product of fraud and racketeering, finding it unenforceable in the USA. The court found Donziger violated the US racketeering statute by committing extortion, wire fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations. The judgment is final after been unanimously affirmed by the Court of Appeals and denied review by the Supreme Court.

Even the government of Ecuador now acknowledges the judgment was based on fraud. The international Bilateral Investment Treaty tribunal in The Hague – including an arbitrator appointed by the Ecuadorian government – unanimously ruled the Ecuadorian judgment was based on fraud, bribery and corruption, and rejected the environmental allegations against Chevron, ruling those claims were settled and released by the Republic of Ecuador decades ago following an environmental remediation supervised and approved by the government.

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Blocking move fails to deter Bermuda's independent press

More trouble in paradise for the staff of Bermuda’s Royal Gazette and its sister newspaper, the Mid-Ocean News, after premier Ewart Brown bizarrely responded to their campaign for more government transparency and a freedom of information law — by trying to cut their access to government spokesmen.

Brown has ordered communications officers at the Cabinet Office and Ministry of Tourism and Transport to “reduce their contact” with the papers. Without apparent irony, Brown declared: “This step has been taken in order to prevent a total breakdown of communication between the Premier’s office and these publications.”

Ludicrous as the strategy reads, it’s seen as further evidence of Brown’s frustration at the failure of his bid to silence the papers’ criticism by stopping their state advertising and subscription deals in March 2008.

This kind of ‘soft censorship’ is common across the Americas and the Caribbean, and roundly condemned by press freedom activists and by constitutional lawyers.

“Government discrimination in the placement of advertising is an act of indirect coercion that is contrary to freedom of speech,” ruled Argentina’s Supreme Court when seeing off a similar bid by a provincial government to block a critical paper. Mexican president Felipe Calderón’s team was marked down last year for using the same tactics on the political magazines Processo and La Tijerata, among others.

It’s a slow-burning strategy that doesn’t always work, even if the courts don’t stand up for free expression rights. On the other side of the Caribbean, the Guyanese government banned state advertising in the leading private daily Stabroek News for 17 months before giving up the boycott under domestic and international pressure.

And with the Bermuda Royal Gazette citing an independent 2008 survey that found their print and online versions reached almost 90 percent of the island’s adult population, the government may be censoring its own messages to the public.

Editor Tim Hodgson of the Mid-Ocean News commented in an editorial that Brown’s decision to cut his already limited contacts with the paper “is entirely of a piece with his decision to introduce personal loyalty oaths for Cabinet Ministers — yet another aggressive demand for uncritical acceptance and unquestioning obedience.”

One answer may lie in the model adopted in Cartagena, Colombia, reported Don Podesta of the Centre for International Media Assistance in Washington. There newly-elected mayor Judith Pinedo set up a committee to regulate government advertising and distribute it with greater transparency and fairness.

In the meantime, premier Brown’s mean-minded strategy will not cow Royal Gazette editor Bill Zuill. “We will continue to submit questions to Government on matters of public importance,” he wrote last week. “When they are not answered, we will publish the questions so that the public will know we are simply trying to find out the truth on their behalf.”