Ecuador court paves way for media regulation under constitution

Bogotá, November 5, 2014–The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by a decision by Ecuador’s highest court that has paved the way for a constitutional amendment that would categorize the news media as a “public service” subject to government regulation.

The Constitutional Court announced on October 31 that the proposed amendment should be decided by the National Assembly rather than by referendum, which the opposition had pushed for, according to news reports. The legislature is dominated by President Rafael Correa’s left-wing Alianza País party, which strongly supports greater state regulation of the news media.

“Rafael Correa has repeatedly used the ‘public service’ argument as pretext to exercise broad regulatory powers over the media and influence news coverage of his government,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas, from New York. “We urge Ecuadoran legislators to modify the proposed constitutional amendment to ensure that it respects international guarantees of freedom of expression.”

Under Ecuador’s 2013 Communications Law, the vaguely defined “communications” is already categorized as a public service and the news media are subject to regulation by a state watchdog. The law is filled with ambiguous language demanding that journalists provide accurate and balanced information or face civil or criminal penalties. It also demands press coverage of events of “public interest” such as presidential visits. The law has resulted in dozens of fines and sanctions against independent news media and the overall impact has been chilling for journalists trying to do in-depth reporting, according to CPJ research.

However, the law has faced several constitutional challenges from critics who insist that press freedoms should be considered human and individual rights. If approved, the amendment would elevate the public service definition to the highest law of the land and effectively rule out legal challenges, Martha Roldós, a media analyst and a former opposition lawmaker, told CPJ.

The amendment was proposed in a June 18 speech by Correa, who is in a long-running battle with the independent media. Correa regularly accuses the press of being corrupt, insults journalists, and tears up newspapers in public. In two separate cases he successfully sued the independent daily El Universo and two investigative reporters who wrote a critical book about his brother.

Government supporters describe this as an effort to “democratize” the media, which they say is dominated by unscrupulous private interests that are too powerful to be self-regulated. They dismiss concerns that the government is attempting to gain broader control over the news media.

But critics say that the proposed amendment opens the door to greater state intervention. Roldós told CPJ that public services can be provided only by entities that receive concessions from the government. In theory, she said, an independent newspaper would need a government concession to circulate, and that such concessions could be revoked at the government’s whim.

The proposed amendment is one of 16 constitutional changes that, according to Roldós, will likely come up for vote next year in the National Assembly. They include a proposed amendment to scrap presidential term limits that could allow Correa, who was first elected in 2006, to run for re-election indefinitely.

Using a combination of legal measures, defamation suits, and public insults, Correa has given Ecuador one of the worst press freedom records in the region, according to CPJ research.