Opposition lawmakers protest the approval of the Communications Law in the National Assembly. (AFP/Eduardo Flores)
Opposition lawmakers protest the approval of the Communications Law in the National Assembly. (AFP/Eduardo Flores)

New Ecuadoran legislation seen as a gag on critics

After inspecting a hydroelectric project in northern Ecuador last year, President Rafael Correa complained about the scant press coverage of his visit and suggested it was part of a media blackout. “Did the Ecuadoran media conspire to ignore this important event? It seems like that is the case,” Correa told the crowd at a town hall meeting. “In this country, good news is not news.”

Under Ecuador’s new Communications Law, however, journalists may have to pay far more attention to ribbon-cutting ceremonies and other government PR events. Article 18 of the law forbids the “deliberate omission of … topics of public interest.” But this wording is so vague that nearly any action by local, state, or national government official could be considered of public interest.

“Newspapers don’t have enough journalists or space to cover all these events. Radio programs don’t have enough air time,” Paúl Mena, president of the Ecuadoran Journalists’ Forum, told CPJ. “If the government starts demanding coverage, there are going to be problems.”

More conflict between the media and the Correa government seems inevitable under the Communications Law, which was approved by the National Assembly on June 14 and will go into effect next month. Not only does the law create a state watchdog entity to regulate media content, but it is filled with ambiguous language demanding that journalists provide accurate and balanced information or face civil or criminal penalties. “This is completely crazy,” Monica Almeida, an editor at the Guayaquil daily El Universo, told CPJ. “The law is designed to regulate everything we do.”

In addition, the government agency that will enforce the new law and impose sanctions will be headed by one of three candidates recommended by Correa, whose government has engaged in widespread repression of the media, including pre-empting private news broadcasts, enacting restrictive legal measures, smearing critics, and filing debilitating defamation lawsuits, CPJ research shows.

A Quito editor, who asked to remain anonymous, expressed his fear that in the future Ecuadoran newspapers will be filled with stories about official events and corrections and clarifications demanded by the government. “This is a grave violation of press freedom,” he said.

Indeed, the Communications Law has been fiercely criticized by local, regional, and international human rights groups as well as by Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Expression.

But at a journalism forum on June 18, Correa defended the law. “The goal is an improved media,” he said. “It’s a very good law. The problem is that the misbehaving press is worried.”

Indeed, Correa is so proud of the new legislation that his government bused in supporters, set up a stage, and hired musicians for a celebration outside the National Assembly building on the day of its passage.

The 44-page law contains 119 articles. In interviews with CPJ, Ecuadoran journalists were at a loss to pick out the worst provisions since they view nearly all of them as serious violations of press freedom.

For example, under the law reporters are now required to earn a journalism degree. Rather than serving as a neutral referee, the Superintendence of Information and Communication–the government’s new watchdog agency–could be used by Correa to simply bash the press. And reporters are especially incensed by Article 26 that prohibits “media lynching.” This is defined as “the dissemination of concerted and reiterative information … with the purpose of undermining the prestige” of a person or legal entity. Media outlets found violating this provision could be ordered to issue public apologies and would be subject to criminal and civil sanctions that are not specified in the legislation.

One magazine editor in Quito, who asked to remain anonymous, said the article seems designed to thwart investigations. That’s because such in-depth reporting often requires publishing a series of stories over several days or weeks that could be construed as harassment.

Mena of the journalists’ forum referred to a scandal last year involving Pedro Delgado, a cousin of Correa who was president of the Central Bank. Under a drumbeat of media criticism in connection with an allegedly improper bank loan as well as his acquisition of a house in Miami through a loan, Delgado resigned in December and fled to Miami. His behavior was later denounced by Correa as “treason.”

Now, Mena said, journalists will think twice about launching similar investigations because they could be accused of media lynching. Ironically, he said, Ecuadoran journalism more often suffers from a lack of follow-up stories on important issues and that the provision would further discourage serious reporting.

The law also states that people have a right to “verified, contrasted, precise, and contextualized” public information. The problem with this, according to El Universo‘s Almeida, is that public officials or business people accused of wrongdoing could refuse to provide information to journalists who could then be accused of running one-sided stories. To encourage news outlets to drop their investigations, Almeida predicted, people under scrutiny will simply clam up. 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.”

“Rather than free expression, the law is more concerned with protecting the reputation of public figures,” said Christian Zurita, an investigative reporter for El Universo. “These are people who make important policy decisions using public money. Now they have a law that protects them from scrutiny.”

Asked if media outlets would attempt to circumvent the Communications Law, reporters and editors told CPJ that they would instead attempt to pursue serious journalism within the restrictions. Almeida pointed out that both Correa and the new Communications Law appear to have broad public support and that protests would be futile. “The worst thing is that people don’t care,” Almeida said. Although the new law could seriously compromise the quality of information they receive, “average folks don’t see it as their problem. They see it as the media’s problem.”