April 27, 2012
Fernando Cordero Cueva
President of the National Assembly
Dear Mr. Cordero:
The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned about a new Ecuadoran communications bill currently under debate in the National Assembly that would roll back press freedom by promoting self-censorship and restrictions on criticism of public officials.
While the bill has been promoted as a means to democratize ownership of and access to media outlets, CPJ’s review of the legislation found that several of its provisions could seriously limit free expression in Ecuador and that its ambiguous language would give wide discretion to the Council on the Regulation and Development of Communication–the official media regulatory body–to impose arbitrary sanctions and censor the press.
The bill includes clauses with vague language that stipulates citizens’ rights to “verified, proven, contextualized, and timely” information, but journalists fear these criteria could be used by authorities to censor critical news coverage. The regulation also runs counter to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, which states: “Prior conditioning of expressions, such as truthfulness, timeliness or impartiality is incompatible with the right to freedom of expression recognized in international instruments.”
The provisions prohibiting content that “directly incites violence, illegal actions, human trafficking, exploitation, sexual abuse, or promotes war and national, racial or religious hatred” are also broad enough to be wide open to interpretation by an executive branch that has used various means to silence critical journalists in the past, according to CPJ research.
While the press is facing new limitations for free speech, government officials, notably, are not. The bill will expand the allowed usage of cadenas–presidential addresses that pre-empt all private broadcast programming nationwide. Not only does the bill place no limits on the rights of national and local government officials to demand free time on radio and TV stations to transmit information to the public, but it eliminates an existing regulation that cadenas be used “exclusively for information regarding the activities of the respective offices, ministries, or public entities.” This will, in effect, legalize what has long been a practice of President Rafael Correa, who has made frequent use of cadenas to smear critical journalists and news outlets, according to CPJ research.
We are also troubled that the bill does not include any language establishing that public officials should be subject to a higher level of scrutiny than citizens. CPJ research shows that Correa and other government officials have used defamation provisions, both criminal and civil, when citing damage to their reputation as part of a systematic campaign to silence critical journalists–a tactic that constitutes one of the most serious ongoing attacks against the Ecuadoran press. The use of anachronistic criminal defamation laws, in particular, contradicts a mounting body of international legal opinion that affirms that public officials should not enjoy protection from scrutiny and runs counter to an emerging consensus in Latin America that civil remedies provide adequate redress in cases of alleged defamation. A communications bill that permits the continuing use of these laws to muzzle critical journalists is, in effect, an anti-press bill.
The proposed bill also includes new restrictions that could limit the rights of citizens to inform and be informed. One provision broadly restricts the circulation of official information stemming from judicial investigations, but does not specify what kind of information and whose access will be limited. Free press advocates, such as the Quito-based press freedom group Fundamedios, have said that this provision could seriously limit access to information of public interest.
Another article requires that journalists who report the news (with the exception of editorial columnists) be “professional journalists,” yet this runs counter to Principle 6 of the Declaration of Principles, which states: “Every person has the right to communicate his/her views by any means and in any form. Compulsory membership or the requirements of a university degree for the practice of journalism constitute unlawful restrictions of freedom of expression.”
As you are aware, the communications bill has been the subject of debate in the National Assembly since August 2009 and the current draft is the 11th iteration. This bill, in its current form, will provide legal cover for the government’s ongoing crackdown. Limiting the media’s ability to operate seriously impinges upon ordinary citizens’ right to be informed, and as article 74.6 of this bill says, the media has a social responsibility to “denounce abuse” and government corruption. Much of the rest of the text of this bill, however, serves to undermine that responsibility.
The bill also follows a series of other laws and court battles waged by the Correa government against the media. A CPJ special report concluded that Correa’s policies had transformed the country into one of the hemisphere’s most restrictive nations for the press.
CPJ has grave concerns about the legislative process itself. Under the Ecuadoran law, the president, who maintains broad powers enshrined in the new 2008 constitution, can introduce modifications into legislation even after it has been passed by the National Assembly. We therefore call on the National Assembly to scrap the bill and draft a new one that will ensure that freedom of expression and the rights of the press are protected as required by the international treaties and conventions on human rights that Ecuador has ratified.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We look forward to your response.