Feb
01
2014

Muzzling Critics—or Building Media Democracy?

Ecuador media law riles US journalists

Jullian Assange interviews President Rafael Correa on World Tomorrow, May 22, 2012.

Jullian Assange interviews President Rafael Correa on World Tomorrow, May 22, 2012.

Changes in media policy in a small Latin American country are the kind of thing that might hardly register in US media. But that depends on whether the country’s leader is the kind who’s seen by journalists as “a brash populist leader who savors tussling with the United States” (Washington Post, 6/24/13) and “a fervent anti-yanqui nationalist” (Time, 10/13/06).

Ecuador’s left-wing President Rafael Correa, who took office in 2007, was part of a wave of leftist Latin American leaders who followed in the footsteps of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. His similarly blunt criticism of the US government and its foreign policy—he once referred to George W. Bush as “dimwitted” (AP, 9/27/06)—has attracted harsh scrutiny from the news outlets of the US establishment, despite the fact that he has presided over an economic boom.

The Washington Post contends that Correa’s “most cherished ambition” is “replacing the deceased Hugo Chávez as the hemisphere’s preeminent anti-US demagogue.” Though one suspects the “anti-US” part is the significant transgression, media attacks focus on alleged demagoguery: The Post editorial page has referred to him as “a small-time South American autocrat” (6/20/12) and “the autocratic leader of tiny, impoverished Ecuador” (6/25/13).

So when Ecuador introduced a law to reshape its media landscape, it’s perhaps little surprise that US journalists cast it as suppressive and anti-democratic.

The media law primarily came up in coverage of Ecuador’s decision to grant WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange asylum in its London embassy, eliciting commentary suggesting that Ecuador’s championing of free speech and journalistic independence was either ironic or hypocritical. During an interview with Assange, CNN’s Erin Burnett (11/28/12) called the country

an unlikely champion of your call for free speech…. Suppressing journalists is not a little thing for someone who says that their job is to put out information that governments try to suppress.

When reports surfaced that Correa was considering a similar offer for NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the Washington Post editorial page (6/24/13) weighed in: “Some might find it awkward to be granting sanctuary to one country’s self-proclaimed whistleblower while stifling their own.” The Post recommended that the US government retaliate by suspending some trade agreements: “If Mr. Correa welcomes Mr. Snowden, there will be an easy way to demonstrate that Yanqui-baiting has its price.”

It’s difficult to imagine that the criticism of Ecuador’s Organic Communications Law has nothing to do with Correa’s left-wing politics. The state of press freedom in, say, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Colombia never seem to attract as much media attention. But US media consumers saw headlines like “Ecuador Law Places Limits on Reporters” in the New York Times (6/14/13). And the law has attracted considerable scrutiny from international press freedom groups; as Carlos Lauria of the Committee to Protect Journalists (Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, 6/20/13) said, “The law makes it clear that one of Correa’s objectives is to silence the government’s critics.”

But Ecuador’s media law represents something more complex than an attempt to bully critics. The Organic Communications Law attempts to treat the news media like a public good or service, with regulations intended to benefit citizens. It calls on each outlet to develop a code of ethics, calls for swift correction of errors, and requires national outlets to have ombudsmen to deal with public complaints.

The law includes broad-ranging affirmative action provisions—increasing access to media for women, young people and indigenous groups. There are also anti-discrimination principles that seek to prevent or discourage racism, sexism and attacks on the disabled (América Latina en Movimiento, 6/17/13). And the law instructs media outlets to open up electoral debates to more candidates (Foundation for Democratic Advancement, 6/27/13).

The part of the law that holds perhaps the most promise for encouraging media diversity is in the management of the broadcast spectrum (Reporters Without Borders, 6/14/13). The law divvies up the spectrum into thirds—for private broadcasters, public media and community broadcasting. And it places strict limits on ownership groups: A company cannot own more than one AM station, one FM station and one television station. As the law states, “It is a matter of justice to prevent direct and indirect oligopoly or monopoly ownership of the communications media.”

As Ecuador’s foreign minister Ricardo Patino explained on Democracy Now! (9/26/13):

What we’re doing is promoting the broadening of freedom and access to media…. There were no public TV, no public media, no public radio, no public newspaper. Now there are. And this allows there to be a diversity of media. And now they attack us for reducing freedom of speech.

The law includes protections for journalists and prohibits censorship. There is even language that attempts to broaden the definition of that term: “A deliberate and recurrent failure to report issues in the public interest constitutes an act of prior censorship” (Ch. 2, Section 1 Article 18).

While this part of the law may have been intended to encourage more reporting on issues that media owners might not want reporters to cover, it’s difficult to imagine how the law could conceivably enforce such provisions.

And that is where critics express concern with parts of the law. One provision, for instance, calls on news websites to come up with systems to identify commenters.

But the most intense criticism has to do with the sanctions in place for what is called “media lynching,” which is defined in the law as a “concerted, reiterated information, directly or by third parties, intended to destroy the prestige” of a person “or to reduce their public credibility.” Serious, responsible journalism could certainly “reduce the public credibility” of corporate or political leaders. Critics of the law worry that the vague language of this part of the law would invite abuse.

That said, it is important to understand the country’s previous media law—and the behavior of major media outlets—in order to assess the new communications law. Reporters Without Borders (6/10) noted that the media law that is being replaced was drafted by a military dictatorship in the 1970s. That law was revised in the 1990s—and one of the principal outcomes was the consolidation of media ownership in the hands of well-connected owners. The group assessed that some of the key provisions of the new law will encourage diversity and could protect journalistic independence.

But for US media, Correa is a politician who loves bashing the United States almost as much as he loves bashing journalists. As one Washington Post article (6/24/13) put it:

Since first winning office in 2007, Correa has focused much of his energy on the media—pillorying reporters by name on his Saturday television show, filing libel suits and pursuing policies to weaken critical media outlets.

It’s true that some outlets will be weaker as a result of the new law—and it’s also true that many new media outlets will be born, and that those marginalized in a system where Reporters Without Borders (9/12) said a “privately owned media…enjoyed a near monopoly” will have a much louder voice.

“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” legendary media critic A.J. Liebling famously declared. For some observers of the situation in Ecuador, the freedom of private owners to dominate is the press freedom that matters most.

Underwhelming Examples of Ecuador's Press Muzzle

With a leader as allegedly hostile to a free press as Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, you'd think you'd find no shortage of examples of efforts to muzzle journalists. But the stories that attract the most attention are worth exploring.

rafhartCorrea sued opinion columnist Emilio Palacio for defamation after he wrote a column in 2011 (2/5/11) alleging that Correa had committed "crimes against humanity," and had ordered the military to fire on a hospital. The piece in question related to a 2010 incident with rebellious police officers that some suspected was a coup attempt. Correa won the case--and then pardoned Palacio and others at the El Universo newspaper (BBC, 2/27/12).

In 2009, a private TV station was removed from the airwaves for three days, after two incidents where the channel had concocted news stories—including the charge that the Correa government had a secret location where it could manipulate vote counts. Another report falsely claimed that residents of the island of Puna would not be able to fish for six months due to a natural gas project (Guardian, 1/8/10).

From a free speech standpoint, any official actions against media outlets or journalists can be troubling. But a genuine concern for free expression has to take into account the danger of unchecked corporate control of media as well. As economist and Latin America watcher Mark Weisbrot (Guardian, 7/21/12) argued, the Ecuador story is best understood as

not a heroic battle for freedom of expression against a government that is trying to "silence critics," [but] a struggle between two political actors. One political actor is the major media, whose unelected owners and their allies use their control of information to advance the interests of the wealth and power that used to rule the country; on the other side is a democratic government that is seeking to carry out its reform program, for which it was elected.

—P.H.

Extra! February 2014