After Century of Publishing Amid Political Turmoil, Ecuadorian Newspaper Eyes Next 100 Years
By Cesar Perez
At the entrance to one of the country’s largest newspapers, El Universo’s first printing press stands as a monument to victory in Ecuador’s struggle to hold onto a fragile democracy marked by a history of military dictatorships and censorship.
The newspaper’s history includes a government-ordered shutdown for a cartoon, editorial board members jailed, a forced front-page apology, violent demonstrations, a bombing of its building and even a presidential lawsuit seeking the imprisonment of its journalists.
El Universo, one of Ecuador’s biggest newspapers, turned 100 years old in September. A hundred years of printing daily newspapers requires institutional resilience, especially if the country the newspaper is covering has a volatile political environment, as does Ecuador. In a period of 10 years, from 1997 to 2007, Ecuador had eight presidents; the next 10 years, only one man ruled from Carondelet, the presidential palace.
Despite a turbulent century in the country’s politics, El Universo has been one of the select number of democratic institutions that has remained firm in the midst of uncertainty.
“I think that principles are what gives stability to the institution,” said Cesar Perez, the deputy director of El Universo. “While the newspaper may change the technology involved in the process, the principles remain the same.”
Perez described El Universo’s principles as being focused around delivering honest, sincere and responsible journalism. He said that the newspaper strives to produce “journalism that serves the people and that is not working for ulterior interests – either political, economic or even personal.”
El Universo’s day-to-day mission consists of registering Ecuador’s history and newsworthy events while striving to follow its principles. As former publisher of the Washington Post Phil Graham said, journalism is the first rough draft of history. In this case, El Universo – among other news outlets – writes the first rough draft of Ecuador’s history.
“[Working on El Universo] has been a nurturing experience. It is a job in which you learn on a daily basis,” said El Universo’s editor-in-chief Nila Velazquez. “Every day the world is moving differently. Here there are no recipes; there are principles.”
Velazquez has helped the paper grow during the latest quarter of its existence. She has served as editor of the opinion section as well as the director “Fundación El Universo” – a non-profit organization linked to the newspaper that used to train journalists and teachers in Ecuador.
While the nonprofit operations are at a halt, El Universo has been more than just a newspaper during its hundred years of existence. Throughout the last century, El Universo has been an institution that has had to stand up for the rights of a free press, Velazquez said.
“El Universo has served the role of being a beacon because an attack on the free press is an attack on democracy,” Velazquez said. “I think El Universo – being the ‘biggest newspaper in the country’ as our slogan reads – resisted not only for itself but also for others.”
Based in Guayaquil, the main port city of the country, the newspaper has a circulation of roughly 40,000 daily copies. On a good day, the number can go as high as 70,000. The number of people that visit the newspaper’s site – which in August of 2021 was a little more than 20,000 – is still trying to catch up to the physical circulation.
While adapting to the digital world is a problem for the next 100 years, the past century was riddled with complex challenges the newspaper had to face. Throughout these challenges, El Universo had to become the “beacon” Velazquez mentions.
In 1937, a little after 10 years of the paper’s inception, a military dictatorship ordered the shutdown of the newspaper over a cartoon; the cartoon featured the dictator Federico Páez in a conversation with his cabinet members and close allies. In reference to The Bible’s Last Supper, the group – unknowingly to Páez – appeared to be plotting a coup d’état against Páez.
After detaining some members of El Universo’s editorial board, the dictatorship ordered the shutdown of the newspaper for almost two weeks. Perez said that the paper was allowed to resume normal activities only after El Universo was forced to pay a fine in case they “offended” the dictatorship again and after publishing “a front-page apology signed by the publisher but written by the censors.”
A few months after El Universo resumed circulation, the very thing the cartoon warned would happen happened. Páez was betrayed by his inner circle.
El Universo has also been the target of violent demonstrations. In 1978, under another military dictatorship, El Universo had been advocating for the investigation of the assassination of politician Abdón Calderón. In the subsequent days, El Universo suffered a bombing in their headquarters. The perpetrators of the crime never faced justice as an official investigation was not launched.
In more recent years, El Universo became a target of then-president Rafael Correa, whose relationship with the press became increasingly tense as his time in office progressed. The most notable moment in the relationship between Rafael Correa and the Guayaquil-based newspaper was when the former president filed a criminal lawsuit against the publishers and an op-ed writer over an article the latter wrote. Correa cited libel as reason for initiating legal action and asked for $80 million dollars as well as three years in jail for those involved.
These three instances of clashes with the powerful – whether dictators or democratically-elected presidents – are just a few examples of the complicated relationship El Universo has had with those leading Ecuador.
“The newspaper faced challenges since day one, internally and externally. The challenges have always been there.” Perez said. “The relationship with those in power has always been a challenge – sometimes more nuanced than others. The newspaper has had to strive for independence always.”
University of Texas journalism professor Rosental Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, said journalism in Latin America faces three main challenges: the judiciary systems do not fully understand the role of the press, politicians tend to pick a fight with the media when they feel criticized and certain de facto powers – such as organized crime and drug cartels – often commit violence against journalists.
“I think the role of newspapers in this kind of context is to be a watch dog. To be the eyes and ears of the people and to expose malfeasance, to contribute to the protection of the common interests of the people.” Alves said. “You do that by practicing independent journalism, and this faces lots of resistance.”
Alves also said he believes there is currently a cycle of resistance against journalism in the Americas. He cited the examples of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela and former president Donald Trump in the United States. Alves said that the attitude of these presidents “creates a very toxic environment for news organizations to play the role that it is supposed to play in a democratic society.”
“Around the world, there is a strong movement that seems to be intentionally trying to destroy the liberal democracy that emerged after World War Two and create something different that some scholars call illiberal democracy.” Alves said. “It is very clear that as part of this construction, populist regimes from the right and the left start by demoralizing the press. They need to demoralize [it] in order to build this authoritarianism they think is better than democracy.”
Alves, a former reporter in many countries of Latin America, said he believes the role of an independent press in such a climate is essential.
Journalists need constitutional and pragmatic guarantees in order to serve the community they are tasked with reporting, Alves said.
“If you don’t have journalism,” he said, “you have propaganda and corruption and all of the malfeasance that happens when there is nobody watching.”
Editor’s Note: Cesar Perez is a fourth-year journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin and is a member of the family that has published El Universo for 100 years.