Translated by Dick Cluster. Leer en español.
Covering the coronavirus pandemic in Guayaquil, Ecuador, one of the hardest-hit cities in South America, has become lethal for journalists. As of April 20, 13 reporters and media employees working in that city have died. The sad list compiled by the Andean Foundation for Observation and Study of Media includes Luis Alberto Flores, of Radio Estrella; Olmedo Méndez Tacuri, of Radio Universal Guayaquil; Roberto Román, of WQ Radio; Victor Hugo Peña, of Ecuavisa; Ángel Sánchez, communications director of the Prefecture of Guayaquil and former television news producer; Manuel Adolfo Varas, of Radio Caravana; Paúl Tobar, of Canal Uno; and Augusto Itúrburu, of the newspaper El Telégrafo. It also includes Carlos Loor, stagehand at Canal Uno; Omar Paredes, driver for the newspaper Extra; Omar Salvatierra, radio producer from i99; Fernando Albán, former cameraman for RTS and TC Television; and Rosendo Escobar Cárdenas, owner of RVT Satelital 91.5 FM.
Following up on this report, the Reporters Without Chains Foundation has investigated the situation of journalists and their organizations in Guayaquil. What stands out is the attrition in every journalistic team. Besides those who lamentably have died, there are others who are infected, who have asked for leave from their jobs, or who have been isolated due to personal circumstances. “The news media are working with 40 percent of their normal staffs,” states Allen Panchana, independent journalist and professor at the Catholic University of Guayaquil. “We don’t have financially powerful media supporting the reporters. I have friends who have had to pay for their own Covid-19 tests, and others who are sleeping in hotels for fear of infecting their families.”
The media still covering the epidemic through firsthand reporting can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The papers Expreso and Extra, whose coverage has gone beyond repeating official declarations, have some 30 active journalists. They are divided into teams alternating weekly shifts, but not all of them come to the newsrooms. “In my group, about five of us come to the newsroom,” says reporter Cristina Bazán, adding that the number of those going out into the streets to report is still smaller. “Only one or two people are assigned to specific beats, which depend on the circumstances. Sometimes we go to hospitals, to cemeteries, or to observe the traffic before curfew time.”
Juan Manuel Yépez, an editor working at both of these papers, reports that the publishers are allowing staffs to decide how they are going to work. “They tell us to put out the best paper we can and to guarantee to our audience that everything they’re going to read will be verified and contextualized.” Since that requires the reporters to be out in the community, the company has given them all the necessary protective equipment except for biohazard suits, which are now unavailable on the local market. “The company has given us everything to prevent possible infection. Also, to enter the newsrooms, you have to be disinfected, have your temperature taken, and wear a mask and gloves inside,” he says.
Express succeeded in interviewing a sister of Ecuador’s “patient zero.” Reporter Estefanía Ortiz found the woman outside of her house in the coastal city of Babahoyo, not taking any protective measures; she died of Covid-19 some days later. Ortiz’s reporting revealed the poor management of the contacts of infected individuals. She attempted to contact the Ministry of Health but received no reply. The newspaper had to pay for her to be tested in a private laboratory and to put her in quarantine until she could be presumed to be free of the virus.
The information that these two major dailies continued to publish cast doubt on the official versions presented by the government, especially in regard to the poor handling of the bodies of those who died. This reporting drew the attention of a government press control agency, still authorized under the Communications Law despite the reforms made over a year ago. The Council for Regulation, Development, and Promotion of Information and Communication sent two official letters exhorting the papers to “improve their journalist practices” after their publication of stories about the discovery of the corpses of coronavirus victims in the streets of the port city. The papers’ publishers responded forcefully, “All of our news (and headlines) are carefully considered by our reporters and editors, who respond to the pleas of thousands of residents of Guayaquil who are confronting a pandemic without precedent in human history. We are not going to sugarcoat the truth, because that would violate our duty to communicate in a transparent fashion.”
The state’s communication apparatus has made strenuous efforts to counter false news and to distribute its own content during the health emergency. Besides offering updated data (at first released twice a day, but now only in the morning) the government networks’ coverage of action by public agencies is repetitive and overwhelming. In many cases it is limited to showing public officials touring hospitals and poor neighborhoods, the acquisition of hospital supplies, and the humanitarian aid that is reaching the country. This poses the risk that many media, lacking a way to do their own coverage, simply reproduce such reports, which have a propagandistic intent.
The story of the unburied bodies appearing in poor neighborhoods of the city, a scandal that has attracted notice throughout the world, does not appear in any of these reports. Only when they could no longer deny the effective collapse of morgues and cemeteries did the official media acknowledge the problem, but they did so by portraying the efficiency of the police and army in the daily collection and burial of remains. Thus it would appear that everything is under control, but new accusations to the contrary continue to appear on social media. Many people assert that the bodies of their loved ones remain lost somewhere in the hospital system, and equal numbers do not know where their relatives have been buried. Yet, once again, the authorities deny the evidence.
The opportunity to pose questions and follow-ups to the authorities was blocked until recently. This provoked a demand by several reporters who, by means of a collective letter made public on April 10, requested a change in the format of the virtual press conferences conducted by the General Secretariat of Communication of the Office of the President. Under this format, reporters had to send in their questions, and only some of them were read by the moderators and the answers from officials were general or vague.
Some reporters were sure that uncomfortable questions were being excluded. Carolina Mella, an investigative journalist who joined the news team of the Ecuavisa network in Guayaquil to reinforce their coverage, called attention to the lack of a procedure for managing corpses, but never got a response from health authorities. “From the outset, I have been criticizing the press conferences that exclude the press, which have been a true disaster. Before the scandal of the dead bodies arose, I tried to ask questions about the protocol for managing them, about where they would be taken, or whether there would be cremations or not. Only once was my question presented, and then in a poorly framed, extremely general way,” she asserted.
The same thing occurs in response to requests to official agencies for information. The Health Ministry is the entity subject to the largest number of complaints. The ministry almost never responds and if so, only with incomplete information. Mella, the Ecuavisa reporter, requested information about biohazard equipment and the numbers of infected health personnel, and received only an incomplete reply three days later. In other emails, she asked about the tracing and isolation of contacts of the infected mayor of Guayaquil and the delay in communicating testing results, and again pressed for information about the protocol for handling corpses, but silence was the only response.
The lack of transparency is evident. Now that the format of the daily bulletin about the pandemic has changed to include information about dates of onset of symptoms instead of dates of confirmed positives, there are inconsistencies in the data. For example, it is known that on February 29, when the first case of Covid-19 in Ecuador was confirmed, there were already at least 28 people feeling the effects of the disease, and on March 17, when movement was restricted and the borders were closed, almost 2,000 people were displaying symptoms although there were only 58 confirmed cases at the time.
As of April 17, nearly 70 percent of the confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Ecuador are concentrated in the province of Guayas, which includes Guayaquil; these included 5,777 people ill with the disease and 193 deaths, according to official statistics. But there are other contradictory data such as the 675 “probable deaths” due to the disease, locality unknown, and the more than 6,700 corpses recovered in Guayaquil during the first 15 days of April, according to Jorge Wated, the official in charge of dealing with unburied corpses. It is unclear how many of these thousands have died of Covid-19.
“There is a lot of information about deaths but it is very scattered. Wated gives out a variety of different numbers. He told me one figure, and gave a different one to another news outlet. I don’t know whether they don’t have the data, or they get it confused,” says Karla Pesantes, a reporter in Guayaquil for the online news portal Primicias. The official press conferences remain ineffective. The latest version involves press conferences via Zoom so that reporters can pose questions directly, but so many communicators log in that not all can pose questions, and the time is limited. These events tend to last an hour. In exceptional cases, particularly on the subject of the economy, they have sometimes lasted up to two hours. A last resort employed by officials like interior minister María Paula Romo is to respond through social media, but again this denies the possibility of follow-up questions, and so we are back where we started.