Tue, 06 Jun 2023

Letter Bombs Are Latest Threat Directed at Ecuador's Media

Voice of America
29 Mar 2023, 08:36 GMT+10

Madrid, Spain - Just days after an explosive device detonated on Lenin Artieda's computer, injuring him, the journalist was back in the newsroom, refusing to let the incident keep him from working.

The main political interviewer for the Ecuavisa television channel was one of five journalists who received letter bombs last week. The attack is the latest in a wave of violence directed at the media in the South American country.

All the targets in the letter bomb campaign were high-profile television and radio journalists.

The Ecuadorean prosecutor's office has opened an investigation into what it terms a crime of terrorism but did not say why it believed the media offices were targeted.

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Organizations that document violations against media and advocate for a safer environment say they are troubled by the attacks.

Cesar Ricaurte, executive director of the media freedom group Fundamedios, described it as a "worrying" development.

"These were designed to send a very strong message of disrespect for the media," he told VOA.

Ricaurte said that journalists are coming under increasing pressure in Ecuador.

His organization documented a record 352 verbal, physical and legal threats made to 441 reporters.

For Artieda, he said the package containing the explosives had seemed legitimate at first.

"I received a pen drive with a piece of paper which said it contained information about corruption in the government of Correa," he said referring to former President Rafael Correa. "It had a name and an address, so it seemed OK."

"When I put it in my computer, it exploded, cutting my face and injuring my right hand slightly. The bomb squad said only 50% of the explosives went off. If all of it had gone off, I would have suffered serious injury."

This photo released by Ecuador's National Police shows police officers searching for explosives after a device detonated at the Ecuavisa channel premises in Guayaquil, Ecuador on March 20, 2023. This photo released by Ecuador's National Police shows police officers searching for explosives after a device detonated at the Ecuavisa channel premises in Guayaquil, Ecuador on March 20, 2023.

Five Ecuador TV Stations Receive Letter Bombs, One Explodes

Though he sustained only minor injuries, he and his family have been left with mental scars, he acknowledged.

"It could have been worse. My family and friends have been scared. But this will not put me off doing my work, providing information for the people of Ecuador," he said.

When he spoke with VOA days after the attack, Artieda was already back in his office.

He declined to speculate on who might be behind the campaign, saying, "That is a job for the police and the legal authorities."

Radio journalist Miguel Rivadeneira, who was also targeted, said he believes he had a lucky escape.

The device sent to Rivadeneira, who is director of news for radio station Ecuadoradio, failed to explode.

"The police told me that as I plugged it into a radio which has a lower electrical charge it failed to explode, whereas a colleague plugged a pen drive impregnated with explosives into a computer and it went off," he told VOA.

Rivadeneira conducts political interviews for the radio station and writes a newspaper column for El Comercio newspaper.

"We are being targeted by people on the margins of the law who are allied with the opposition. The government wants to uphold the law," he said.

"We are trying to conduct responsible and reliable journalism, but some people do not respect that."

Rivadeneira said his country was also increasingly coming under pressure from drug traffickers.

His radio station had been critical of former President Correa, like other media that were targeted.

Correa was granted asylum in Belgium after he was convicted in absentia of graft and sentenced to eight years in prison.

The Ecuadorean prosecutor's office is leading the investigation into the media attacks and says it has identified a suspect, according to reports. The suspect has not been named and authorities have not said whether the person has been detained or why it believed the journalists were targeted.

Juan Zapata, the interior minister, disclosed that the envelopes were sent from Quimsaloma, a town in the coastal province of Los Rios. Three were sent to Guayaquil, a crime-ridden city, and two to the capital, Quito.

"There is an absolutely clear message to silence journalists," Zapata said. The device was "the same in all five places," he told journalists.

Envelopes containing USB sticks were delivered to Artieda, Rivadeneira, Mauricio Ayora of TC Television, and Milton Perez of Teleamazonas.

Police said the USB drive sent to Artieda could have been loaded with RDX, a military type of explosive.

Another package was sent to journalist Carlos Vera, who has worked for TC Television channel, but it was intercepted by the police at a courier company in Guayaquil and did not reach its target, police said.

In the letter bomb addressed to Teleamazonas, a note contained information about Correismo, which is a political movement named after Correa.

The Ecuadorean government said in a statement that it "categorically rejects any form of violence perpetrated against journalists and media outlets."

It added that any attempt to "intimidate journalism and freedom of expression is repugnant."

Police officers collect evidence after a device detonated at the Ecuavisa channel premises in Guayaquil, Ecuador, March 20, 2023. Police officers collect evidence after a device detonated at the Ecuavisa channel premises in Guayaquil, Ecuador, March 20, 2023.

With attacks on media overall on the rise in the country, Ricaurte of Fundamedios said he wants "a strong response from the state and more protection for the media."

He added that some cases involving media killings are still unresolved, adding, 'Another journalist is missing."

Ecuador, which is sandwiched between Colombia and Peru - seen as the world's biggest cocaine producers - has become a focus of the global drug trade in recent years, according to the research group Insight Crime.

Guayaquil, where some of the bombs were mailed to, is one of the most violent cities, with frequent clashes among rival drugs gangs over smuggling routes, Agence France Press reported.

Ecuadorean President Guillermo Lasso has declared war on the gangs. The groups control the illicit trade from prisons which are also engulfed in violence and riots that have claimed the lives of more than 400 inmates since 2021, according to the AFP.

The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders notes that journalists in the country "are working in a climate of growing danger."

Journalists regularly report receiving death threats. Last year, the RTS TV station came under gunfire attack, and in 2020 a bomb exploded at the entrance to the Teleamazonas broadcaster in Guayaquil.

Some information for this report is from Agence France-Presse.

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