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Page last updated at 16:36 GMT, Tuesday, 8 July 2008 17:36 UK

Ecuador state seizes TV stations

A banner reading "Freedom of Expression: SOS" hangs from the Gamavision building in Quito
"Freedom of expression: SOS" reads the banner at Gamavision's offices

Ecuador's government has seized two private TV stations in a long-running dispute over debts.

Backed by police, officials raided the TV channels in Quito and Guayaquil, and another 193 companies in the same business group were also seized.

The dispute is linked to the collapse of banks in the late 1990s and the state's efforts to recover money.

The stations' owners said the seizures were "an attack on free speech", while Economy Minister Fausto Ortiz resigned.

He quit President Rafael Correa's government after apparently disagreeing with the takeover of the two small stations, TC Television in Quito and Guayaquil and Gamavision in Quito.

Extradition

The raids were carried out by officials from the state's Deposit Guarantee Agency (AGD), which seeks to recover funds from banks that closed or went bankrupt in a financial crisis in the late 1990s.

The companies taken over on Tuesday form part of Grupo Isaias, whose owners are related to two bankers, Roberto and William Isaias.

President Rafael Correa in a file photo from April 2008
The president's office said the move aimed to recover people's money

The brothers ran the now closed Filanbanco that is being investigated for alleged embezzlement of state money put at some $661m (335m).

The Ecuadorean government is seeking their extradition from the US.

The owners of the TV channels deny that they have any direct business relationships with the Isaias brothers.

"This is an attack on freedom of expression," said Gamavision's manager, Carlos Dassum, who called on President Correa to rectify the situation.

"They're talking about Filanbanco's debts... we (Gamavision) don't owe anyone anything, we're an independent channel, we report and will continue to report the truth," he told the Spanish news agency Efe.

'Censored'

A statement from the Ecuadorean presidency said that 195 companies, among them insurance, construction and farming businesses linked to the Isaias Group, had been seized.

The AGD had acted to take over "all the property of those who were administrators and shareholders of the former Filanbanco on 2 December, 1998".

Police stand guard  outside Gamavisoin in Quito
It is not clear how long the companies will be under state control

"With this measure, which should have been taken 10 years ago, renewed hope is given to the hundreds of citizens who never got their money back following Filanbanco's collapse," the statement said.

The two stations, which are sometimes critical of the government, have relatively small audiences, correspondents say.

Gamavision's morning news programme led on the station's seizure, going off air five minutes later to be replaced by a comedy programme, AP news agency reported.

At one point, the words "Censored by Correa" were transmitted.

The authorities reassured workers that there would be "regular programming ", a workers' representative told AP.

Mr Ortiz, who had been in the economy post for a year, has been replaced by Wilma Salgado, the president's office said.


SEE ALSO
Ecuador leader celebrates 'win'
16 Apr 07 |  Americas
Country profile: Ecuador
16 Apr 08 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Ecuador
06 Jun 08 |  Country profiles

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