Ecuador’s New Law Dispels the Myth of ‘Media Democratization’ in Latin America

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written by
Alexander Brockwehl
Program Associate, Latin America

“Democratizing the media” is a common refrain in Latin America these days. It can be heard in weekly presidential “cadenas” and verbose diatribes during the biannual hearings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). While the phrase may suggest a process that would lift restrictions on media and increase citizen access, it has been invoked to support policies that do the opposite, becoming a favorite slogan of the region’s least democratic leaders, chief among them Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa.

On June 14, Ecuador’s National Assembly passed a Communications Law that gives the government broad powers to regulate media content. The next day, in his weekly televised address, Correa applauded the law’s adoption, claiming that it “democratizes property and access to the news media.” But like many other measures enacted during the president’s six-year tenure, the law does no such thing, amounting instead to a startling encroachment on the fundamental right to free expression. As Correa has demonstrated, “democratizing the media” is just the latest example of the appropriation of democratic ideals by Latin America’s populist leaders, who seek to veil their repressive tactics under the pretense of social inclusion and fundamental fairness.

“Ley Mordaza”

The Communications Law, which critics have dubbed the “Ley Mordaza” (Gag Law), was passed last week with support from 108 of 135 legislators. Though the measure has been contentious since its submission to the National Assembly in 2009, it was seen by many at that time as a necessary step in a country with a history of concentrated media ownership among wealthy elites, where more than 85 percent of radio and 70 percent of television frequencies are owned by private companies. In theory, the law would ensure equitable representation in the news media by redistributing television and radio licenses evenly between private, government-owned, and community-owned outlets, allocating approximately 33 percent of available licenses to each category.

However, in the years that followed, Correa unleashed a multifaceted assault on the press, making it clear that the Communications Law was not intended to increase media pluralism, but rather to regulate public opinion and silence dissent. The final version of the law establishes two regulatory bodies whose government-appointed members will be tasked with overseeing the redistribution of licenses. Their mandate will also include monitoring the information that is accessible to citizens and ultimately “ensuring compliance” with the new law by issuing fines, imposing sanctions, and even recommending criminal penalties for those who violate its provisions. The regulatory bodies will be able to assess the factuality and accuracy of media content and punish outlets accordingly. Among the transgressions outlined by the law are publishing public information that is not “verified, contrasted, precise, and contextualized” and neglecting to cover “issues of public interest.”

While the law’s vague language leaves it open to many interpretations, the president’s record on freedom of expression offers a bleak foreshadowing of how it will likely be used to further restrict media space in the country. According to Freedom House’s annual press freedom survey, Ecuador has experienced the world’s second-largest decline over the last five years, finally earning a downgrade from Partly Free to Not Free status in the recently released 2013 edition. As the survey shows, Correa has used virtually every trick in the antipress playbook to intimidate and silence his perceived media opponents, from launching high-profile lawsuits and pushing through restrictive new laws to ordering the closure of broadcasters that have been critical of his administration. Article 26 of the Communications Law expands the tools at Correa’s disposal, as it outlaws the dissemination of information that “directly or through a third party … is published … with the intent of discrediting another person … or reducing his/her public credibility.” The provision seems to directly address Correa’s frequently voiced complaint that he is the victim of baseless slander and attacks on his character by the media.

The new law also takes advantage of Ecuador’s lack of independent public institutions. Correa’s successful lawsuits against journalists at the newspaper El Universo, the authors of the book El Gran Hermano, and most recently an opposition politician were all made possible by a judiciary filled with politically friendly appointees. Similarly, the telecommunications office, designed to impartially administer broadcast frequencies, has instead served as a politicized media police, closing 11 stations during a three-month span in 2012, more than half of which had been outwardly critical of the government, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The two regulatory bodies created by the new law will likely follow the same pattern, as Correa can be expected to appoint loyalists to both.

“Democratizing the Media”

The overwhelming support that the Communications Law received in the National Assembly, and the relatively tepid response to its passage by domestic and international observers, reveal the degree of control that Correa has achieved since taking power in 2007. Not only has he effectively centralized political decision making, he has monopolized the public discourse, which can be equally useful in a context where perceptions of leadership seem to be influenced as much by rhetoric as by policy.

The passage of the Communications Law could have consequences throughout the region, as other leaders observe how Correa managed to use high levels of legislative support and public indifference to pass a law that may all but eliminate expressions of dissent in the media. Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Bolivian president Evo Morales have already exhibited an affinity for Correa’s style of “democratizing the media.” And the Honduran legislature recently considered a law that would similarly create a regulatory body to redistribute operating licenses. Citizens of these countries should view the new law as an example of what to avoid, as it will only weaken Ecuador’s already compromised institutions. There is a real need to diversify media ownership in Latin America, but replacing private monopolies with state dominance and politicized regulation is not the way to do it.

Photo Credit: http://www.exa.ec

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