Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Freedom of Speech in Ecuador

Rafael Correa is Ecuador's president since January 15th 2007. He is smart and very well educated. He earned a Master of Science in Economics and PhD in economics. He published several books and scientific articles. He considers himself a Christian, humanitarian leftist. During his term Ecuador's public and external debt have decreased considerably leaving Ecuador with relatively small debt now. However because of defaulting on $3.2bn in global bonds in 2009, Ecuador cut itself off from capital markets and multilateral lenders such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. To date, Correa’s administration has succeeded in reducing high levels of poverty, indigence, and unemployment. He is known as confrontational, but also as bona fide. So what's the full story on freedom of speech in Ecuador?
It is unfair to say that freedom of expression and the media are first under fire from political power in Ecuador. The country has a long history of abuses of the rights of reporting, opinion and dissent.
  Nowadays politicians use all kind of guerrilla tactics while (ab-)using media outlets. Remember for instance the healthcare debate in the US or consider what FoxNews is doing or look at the Teaparty campaigns. Besides populism, polarization, libeling and false accusations, public opinion remains a very strong weapon in the hands of the opposition for any government. After elections, the game continues in the media with every new government bill, initiative or mistake. Expensive investigative journalism is less attractive today to most newspapers and Radio/TV stations. All too often investigative journalism is interpreted as investigating the Internet. More and more mainstream media seem to be limited for their coverage to news agencies, quotes, rumors, columnists and sensational events and on top of that have to deal with deadlines. Also the public is less prepared to pay for high quality news reports and news analysis. Therefore mainstream media are happy to report on domestic politics in the way they do. These are the tendencies in Western Europe and the US, but in Latin America and especially Ecuador the situation is much, much worse, because polarization as well as temperament is often much stronger and corruption also comes into play.
Rafael Correa
Courtesy of Agência Brasil
  In Ecuador President Rafael Correa seems to have found a way to reverse this trend. He is trying to muzzle the media outlets for some years now quite successfully. After the 2010 coup attempt Correa thinks that his opposition is still severely obstructing his policies through (ab-)use of the media. The 2010 coup attempt was denied by Correa's opposition at the time, but evidence that it was an attempt was presented rapidly: intercepted communications from within the police force indicating that destabilization efforts were being planned; an attack on Ecuador TV, former Ecuadoran president Lucio Gutiérrez calling on Correa to step down; 300 air-force troops were blocking the runway of Quito’s Mariscal Sucre International Airport and unfurled pre-printed banners; the president’s armored Nissan sport utility vehicle showed bullet damage including a shot to the windshield; professional coordination in organizing chaos in the country. The passing of a law affecting the police officers' bonuses and job benefits became a pretext for the rebellion which erupted in the capital city of Quito and the Guayquil seaport town.    
Lucio Gutiérrez
Courtesy of Agência Brasil
Actually, the law was not supposed to entail pay reductions, but those who masterminded the coup managed to convince the police that it would and thus provoked the uprising. These facts were downplayed in the Ecuador liberal press and surprisingly also in the mainstream US media. According to several International Press Associations and Human Rights Organizations throughout the year 2011 there has been a rapidly growing threat to freedom of expression in the country. Those organizations probably aren't aware where Ecuador is coming from. Ecuador has a history of popular uprisings, and has had eight presidents since 1996. Correa's government has been the most stable and successful one in more than a decade. Those organizations are probably also unaware of the true nature of Ecuadorian politics and its strong polarization.

Correa's method to muzzle the media outlets consists of eight elements:

Criminal Defamation Law
Correa found new use for an outdated criminal defamation law, which is not in line with article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights and the jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. He is using this law to file criminal defamation complaints against all libelous publications against him or his government. SIP-IAPA has recorded 45 cases this year alone. To mention a few:
  • In May 2007 Correa filed a lawsuit against Francisco Vivanco Riofrío of the board of directors of the Quito-based La Hora newspaper over an editorial, titled “Official Vandalism,” said that Correa intended to rule Ecuador “with turmoil, rocks and sticks”.
  • In the 6 February 2011 edition of El Universo a critical article was published "No a las mentiras" (No to lies) about a police uprising on 30 September 2010. President Correa filed a defamation complaint against the media company, three senior executives and the journalist Emilio Palacio. On 20 July 2011, all four defendants received three-year sentences for criminal defamation and were ordered to pay the president US$ 30 million in damages. El Universo was fined an additional US$10 million. The journalist Emilio Palacio is the half brother of former liberal President Alfredo Palacio (April 2005 to January 2007). Emilio Palacio has been ranting and raving Correa and his government for a long time in his El Universo columns. He is now living in Miami.
  • In 2011 Correa has also filed a lawsuit against Juan Carlos Calderón and Christian Zurita , investigative journalists and authors of the book "Gran Hermano" (Big Brother). The lawsuit is based on the book's content, a journalistic investigation into contracts signed between the president's brother, Fabricio Correa, and the State.
  • La Verdad editor Milton Chacaguasay Flores was jailed several times in 2008-09 for allegedly libeling a judge.
  • A radio journalist was sentenced to one year in prison in May 2011 for supposedly defaming a local mayor.
Ranting the Media in Public
Frequent hostile speeches delivered by President Correa on TV and Radio against independent and critical media and the increase in cases of physical aggression against media employees has created a climate of growing fear and division amongst the Ecuadorian press.
Regulatory Council 
The government intends to establish a Regulatory Council empowered to regulate media content. five of its seven members will be chosen from institutions close to the government.
Ban on Private Ownerships
The government plans to introduce a ban on privately owned news companies. One of the measures is that the owners of the “national” media may not have other businesses.
Revoking Licenses of Radio/TV Stations
Correa (as well as Chávez) revoked the license of Radio Caracas Televisión Internacional (RCTV Internacional) because he said its broadcast would be "coup instigating".
Expropriations and Creating Government Media Outlets
Government owns/controls 12 media outlets (TV, radio, newspapers, news agencies) and even more magazines and websites. This apparatus has been developed into a powerful propaganda tool:
- Radio Stations: la Radio Nacional, Radio Pública del Ecuador, Carrusel, Súper K 800
- TV-Stations: Ecuador TV, Gama TV, Cable Noticias (CN3), Cable Deportes (CD7)
- Newspapers: El Telégrafo, El Ciudadano, PP el Verdadero
- News Agencies: ANDES (la Agencia Nacional de Noticias del Ecuador y Sudamérica)
Imposing Fines
In June 2009, fines were imposed on a remaining independent television station, Teleamazonas, for transmitting bull-fights and "The Simpsons" during prime time. In December 2009, the station was taken off the air under a provisional suspension of 72 hours.
Department of Information 
“All interviews with public officials are supposed to be cleared and monitored by the department of information...This has led many officials to stop giving information to the press, especially in corruption cases, because they are afraid," said Arturo Torres, the head of the investigative unit of Ecuador’s El Comercio newspaper, which has investigated numerous cases of corruption in the Correa administration.

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