Practicing journalism in the Galapagos, where “hyper-local” meets “hyper-sensitive”

Gina Andrade at Radio Encantada, which broadcasts from Galapagos Islands.

Gina Andrade at Radio Encantada, which broadcasts from Galapagos Islands. (Photo courtesy of Judy Muller)

When most people think of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, they think of exotic species, from giant tortoises to blue-footed boobies. There are more than a hundred volcanic islands in this archipelago, a living laboratory for scientists and a “bucket list” destination for tourists from all over the world.

So when visitors are told there are some 28,000 people living in the Galapagos (clustered on four of the islands), they are often surprised. And that human population continues to grow, as more and more workers arrive from the mainland to service the booming tourist economy. The boom threatens to undermine the very thing that is attracting the tourists in the first place: a fragile ecosystem that can be found nowhere else on the planet.

As a journalist, I am fascinated by this evolving story in a place where the very term “evolving” has enormous significance.  And I wondered how the local media (and yes, they exist, too) would approach that story, given the economic and political pressures and the dilemma facing all journalists in a “small town” atmosphere: how to report on people who are also your neighbors.

In May, I had the good fortune to travel to the Galapagos with two other veteran journalists to conduct workshops with local media. George Lewis, recently retired after more than 40 years as an NBC News correspondent, and Cecilia Alvear, a former NBC News producer, are extremely knowledgeable about the life and culture of the Galapagos. Alvear was, in fact, born there – on the island of San Cristobal, where her father served as the military governor of the Galapagos Islands in the 1940s. She has deep ties to the islands, where a local elementary school carries her father’s name, and she visits every year. Alvear and Lewis have created a website devoted to Galapagos news,, which is written both in Spanish and English.

As the “rookie” on the team, I was nevertheless able to provide some insight into common pressures facing editors and communicators in small towns elsewhere; my book “Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns” focuses both on why hyper-local journalism works so well in the United States (i.e. the audience can’t get that news anywhere else) and the challenge of reporting the truth when the backlash can be deeply personal (the “too close for comfort” factor).

Collectively, we felt we could offer our experience in using social media to enhance communication and to actively involve the “audience” in the conversation.

We also knew it wouldn’t be easy.

Journalists in the Galapagos and Ecuador’s mainland face obstacles that American journalists do not have to deal with. An investigation last year by the Committee To Protect Journalists concluded the administration of President Rafael Correa “has led Ecuador into a new era of widespread repression by filing defamation lawsuits in civil and criminal courts, pre-empting private news broadcasts, enacting restrictive legal measures, and smearing critics.” Correa has sued editors for defamation because they were critical of his administration, resulting in sentences and fines. The president, who initiated the complaints, later withdrew the charges against the editorial director and three executives of the daily El Universo, sparing them a sentence of four years in prison and a fine of US$40 million.

Nevertheless, the rulings have had a chilling effect on investigative reporting and political commentary. Several organizations, including CPJ, Reporters Without Borders, SIP/IAPA and Unity Journalists of Color have called on President Correa and the National Assembly (which is considering a new communications law) “to repeal existing insult laws” that have resulted in criminal defamations suits against nine Ecuadorian journalists and news directors in recent years.

We heard a bit about that chilling effect when we met with the editor and reporter who run the Galapagos’ one newspaper, a bi-monthly called “El Colono.”  The paper, based in the bustling town of Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz, sells for a dollar and has a print run of a thousand copies. The only other publication is the official paper published by the provincial government with “news” of the islands, but El Colono’s editor, Enrique Ramos, does not consider it competition, because “people know the difference.”

Left to right: Cecilia Alvear; Judy Muller; reporter Marylu Abril and editor Enrique Ramos of El Colono.

Left to right: Cecilia Alvear; Judy Muller; reporter Marylu Abril and editor Enrique Ramos of El Colono. (Photo courtesy of Judy Muller)

Even so, Ramos gets pressure from the government. When he wrote about the poor maintenance at the children’s park in town, he got pushback from the mayor, who called to complain. The town and the provincial government are major advertisers, so Ramos felt the heat (much like editors in small towns in the United States feel the heat when a major advertiser threatens to withdraw over an editorial difference of opinion). Ramos says he told the mayor, “You can say what you want in your ad; the rest of the paper is mine.”

One of the most difficult issues they have had to cover involves the ongoing conflict between the National Park and local fishermen, who believe there is a disparity between the way law enforcement treats them and the big corporations that run the cruise ships. When one local fishing boat was caught with lobster out of season, the fishermen were arrested and the boat was confiscated. But when a larger boat, the 96-passenger Celebrity Xpedition, was caught doing the same thing, it was stopped for a couple of hours and neither the captain nor the chef was arrested.  Reporter Marylu Abril says neither side understands how journalism works: “They want us to take sides,” she says. She has to repeatedly call government officials for comments, who don’t want to be quoted in print. Meanwhile, the fishermen think the paper should take a more aggressive stand against the government. Ramos did write an editorial about that case, however, complaining about the unfair enforcement and application of the law.

It’s difficult to know if Ramos’ decision to criticize the government in that case (a courageous editorial stand, given the status of the government as a major advertiser and the chilling effect of anti-defamation laws) had an impact, but the government did finally bring charges against Celebrity Cruise Line in the matter.

As my colleague George Lewis writes on, the Celebrity Xpedition had its license revoked for 45 days by the National Park for carrying lobster tails out of season. Celebrity had to cancel its June cruises and reimburse passengers. The case is being appealed and in the meantime the ship is at anchor in Puerto Ayora.

Another story that El Colono covered aggressively was the trial of a man accused of trying to smuggle iguanas off the island (many of the crimes here involve protected species). It was front-page news when the man, Dirk Bender, was convicted and a panel of judges sentenced him to prison.But the judges disagreed over the length of the sentence, and a number of local residents were concerned that the culprit would get off lightly because of some behind-the-scenes bargaining. One of the judges (who favored a one-year sentence over four years) was upset with El Colono’s quoting him and is now suing. Even though this judge made the same comments during a live radio interview on the local station, he maintained that there is a critical difference: the radio interview is heard only on the islands while the newspaper is a permanent record that travels to mainland Ecuador.

If print has that much power, imagine what a website could do. So far, Ramos has not created a website for his newspaper, expressing the same concern that small town papers everywhere have: who will pay for the print product if you give it away?  We suggested a simple paywall, which has worked well for many small town papers in the United States. People are willing to pay, say, $20 a year for a subscription to the website if that is the only place they can follow news of their hometown. As for developing connections with various community advocacy groups in the area on Facebook — and there are a number of them — Ramos was clearly not interested. “We might be accused of encouraging anti-government activists, even terrorists,” he said. So much for transparency, community journalism and “user exchange.”

Ramos does allow letters to the editor, with most of them critical of the way the government is handling the huge immigration of mainlanders arriving to take tourism jobs. But many readers are afraid to sign their names, he says, to opinions that might result in a backlash from their neighbors, or their employers. I shared some anecdotes from editors in small towns in the United States who have this same problem, including one who was doing a bland story about New Year’s resolutions: “One woman, who would only speak anonymously, said she wished for world peace,” I told him. Ramos laughed, in shared recognition of local timidity.  Truly controversial issues, of course, engender even more reticence, and the Galapagos Islands face many such issues, which are likely to dominate the news for years to come as newcomers put more pressure on everything from energy to water to sewage.

Sometimes the issue of human encroachment is framed in the story of another species. The yellow warbler is a victim of the tourist surge; hundreds of the little birds are being killed each week by cabs racing along the main highway on Santa Cruz, carrying tourists from the airport to town.  The National Park staff has tried to address this – on its website and with billboards on the highway that beg drivers to obey the speed limit and spare the warblers. But it has been community activists who have started to publicize the slaughter, as George Lewis reported.

The local media have also reported the story but rarely do any follow up to see what is being done in the way of solving the problem. Not only is this clearly an issue that many locals care about, but it is also a perfect way to get into the bigger story of how tourism is, perversely, hurting the very thing that attracts visitors in the first place. When we asked the staff at the National Park (where we also held a workshop for improving web communication) why they had not done more with social media, they explained that only one employee was allowed to have access to Facebook on the Park’s computers (perhaps because Facebook is seen as more of a distraction than as a communication tool).

We found a completely different attitude over at Radio Encantada, the very popular (and only) 1,000 watt radio station on Santa Cruz (with a 500 watt repeater on San Cristobal) and a live-streaming website:

The husband and wife owners, Gina Andrade and Carlos Mena, pretty much run the show, with the help of computerized music programming and a DJ. They provide news by reading world and national news a couple times a day, but local coverage is limited to interviews. They have embraced multimedia and social media, reaching out to their listeners on Facebook and Twitter to elicit questions for future interviews and to encourage comments afterwards on their website. Carlos has invested in mobile journalism by purchasing a video lens, a light and an editing app for his iPhone, and he has taken some online instruction. Although the bandwidth in the Galapagos makes it difficult for him to upload video to his website, he wants to be ready for the day that changes.

Their next big interview is with Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, who is planning to visit the islands this month. Correa recently made headlines with his decision to appoint a new president of the Galapagos Provincial Council (Consejo de Gobierno de Galapagos). In announcing the appointment of Maria Isabel Salvador on his Saturday broadcast to the nation, Correa said “there is disorder, a lot of abuse, anarchy and a lack of policies” that damage the ecosystem and tourism on the islands. So Correa’s interview with Radio Encantada is certainly timely. But Gina and Carlos have been told that the president’s office will provide a list of topics. When George Lewis suggested that their first question should be “Why did your office insist that we stick to the questions they provided,” he was told that such a question would be insulting. Given Correa’s hostility towards journalists, it could also be risky.

Even so, it would be quite wonderful if Radio Encantada could provide a conduit between audience and authority, eliciting questions on its website beforehand and asking the president some hard-hitting questions about the future of the Galapagos, a place that may be “hyper-local” in media terms, but is “hyper-sensitive” in global terms. And best of all, we could all listen in.

About Judy Muller

Judy Muller is a professor of broadcast journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a former ABC News correspondent.


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