By Ramiro Crespo
A year after Ecuador passed its controversial media law, the Ley Orgánica de Comunicación (LOC), most of the fears that it provoked as a potential instrument of repression have come true.
Freedom House, a U.S. non-governmental organization that supports liberal democracy, since last year has rated Ecuador’s press as “not free” and Internet usage as only “partially free,” but notes an aggravation of attacks on private media under the new law. This will likely continue, as will the double standards in its application, with government controlled-media free to attack real or perceived opponents.
President Rafael Correa, as part of the self-described “21st-Century Socialist” group of political leaders, describes state supervision of media as part of revolutionary change aimed at benefitting the majorities rather than traditional oligarchies. This has led to discrimination of banks and media companies in particular. The government’s claims however lack academic proof, and have become hard to sustain amid alienation of the ideological left from his political project.
The media law defines freedom of the press as a “public service” and public good rather than an individual right, and planned constitutional reform aims to cement this (it will probably pass without a referendum, though the 2008 constitution he originally championed forbids reduction of rights, which would imply the need for yet another new constitution). A newspaper columnist commented that the concept of the media as a “public service,” which the government seeks to put into the constitution to legitimize the media law retroactively, originally stems from the likes of Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco. After Correa’s chief of staff, Vinicio Alvarado, superficially replied to this by saying these fascist dictators “couldn’t have been all bad,” he blamed the television anchorwoman who had interviewed him for misquoting him, although the media went to great lengths to quote him verbatim.
One point consistently overlooked by those who claim to fight a private “media monopoly” is that major newspapers and television broadcasters require a sizeable investment to establish, given the cost of printing presses and television studios, among other required fixed installations. Hence, a non-oligopolistic market isn’t economically feasible, although of course ownership could be broken up by spreading shares more widely.
Meanwhile, Quito newspaper Hoy and Guayaquil newspaper El Telégrafo have become symbols of the discrepancies in fates between private and government print products. The former was founded in 1982 as a more liberal alternative to El Comercio. While influential in public opinion, particularly in criticizing the conservative-populist regime of León Febres Cordero (1984-1988) that saw numerous human rights violations, and an early adopter of cutting-edge technology, it managed to overtake its older rival, frequently registering losses. Last month, its publisher, Jaime Mantilla, pulled the plug on the daily print edition, moving most production online, blaming the hostility of the government and the discriminatory limits on media investment for the move.
In Hoy’s farewell editorial for the print edition, it also said that the government refused to advertise in the paper and that it had lost contracts to print schoolbooks. Unsurprisingly, government officials blasted Mantilla for his comments; beyond this however, government-controlled media heaped the blame on his management of the newspaper, publishing detailed financial information that showed years of losses at Hoy. To top it off, a week after the announcement, Hoy received a $57,800 fine from the “Supercom” media regulator for printing its circulation data on page 9, rather than page one.
On the one hand, this looks like the perfect example of media campaign or “media lynching” prohibited by the media law. On the other, El Telégrafo, which became state property amid the bank failures of the 1998-2000 financial crisis and functions as a government mouthpiece, has refused to make public its own accounts. Exiled Ecuadorian journalist Emilio Palacio estimates that running El Telégrafo has cost the public sector at least $28.4 million since 2007. Santiago León, its chief executive, in a leaked document acknowledged a loss of more than $3 million in the first five months of 2014 alone. Supercom meanwhile has hired 225 staffers to oversee the industry, plus external contractors like Rommel Jurado, a former legislative aide who worked on the law, who has won some $200,000 in consulting fees.
While obligatory national broadcasts called “cadenas nacionales” continue to impose government content on radio and television, the administration appears to be finding a mechanism to act similarly in the case of print media. After Correa came home from a May trip to Santiago de Chile, where he received his 11th honorary doctorate, he complained that the media had failed to inform the public adequately.
Promptly, Carlos Vera, head of a self-proclaimed citizen media watchdog, complained to Supercom that newspapers La Hora, El Comercio, Hoy, and El Universo had failed to cover the trip “in sufficient detail and space.” Vera denied any ties to the government, but previously worked for it. Each newspaper published reports of the trip gleaned from international newswire services, including Agence France Press. Correa probably wanted them to report on his doctoral speech and the ceremony at greater length, although all he did was boast of his government’s achievements for the nth time, as he did in his speeches before university audiences in the U.S. a few months earlier.
Ironically, more coverage of the real news is hardly what Correa should have demanded. He complained to Chilean public television that he had had to bribe a journalist in 1985 to get coverage of an event he had organized as a student leader. In a radio interview, he sparked a diplomatic row by gratuitously getting involved in Latin America’s most protracted border dispute, saying that he supported Bolivia’s demand for sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean through Chilean territory. More than anything, the interview highlighted the president’s lack of understanding of the historic and development questions involved in the dispute between the two countries, which is currently being discussed before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Correa later clarified that what he had supported was integration and access to the coast for Bolivia, which, as he appears not to know, the 1904 treaty of limits already grants, as well as Paraguayan access to the Atlantic. For Chile, the anger over his comments was enough for president Michelle Bachelet, also a socialist, to send her defense minister, Jorge Burgos, to Quito to complain. Here, the coverage may reflect growing self-censorship. Newspaper editors received tips that Burgos would have liked to explain Chile’s position in the border disputes, but they didn’t take up the matter. In the case of anti-mining protests in Íntag, television broadcaster Ecuavisa already publicly stated that it decided not to present its footage due to the threat of government sanctions.
In the meantime, the regulators – besides Supercom, a board called Cordicom – have unsurprisingly raised eyebrows, and even suffered ridicule. A foolish suit by Sandra Correa helped Supercom make a show of independence. Correa, unrelated to the president but a sympathizer of his administration, was education minister of populist president Abdalá Bucaram (1996-1997) and sentenced to three years in jail in 2006. In her complaint, she accused a radio talk show host of “media lynching” for failing to censor guests who commented on the case. Supercom struck down her plea because of retroactivity (she now claims mentioning her case constitutes a “hate crime”).
But Supercom, before the fine it imposed on Hoy, quickly became an international reference for the absurd when it ordered caricaturist Xavier Bonilla to “correct” a caricature of a police search of an opposition activist’s apartment and fined its publisher, El Universo, $90,000 for failing to censor him. In April, it fined tabloid Extra for publishing a female model in string underwear from behind in its usual “sexy Monday” edition, calling her a “filly,” as well as for its reporting on the death of two staffers of a Riobamba university in a car crash. Intimidation also takes other forms. After Guayaquil newspaper Expreso quoted the director of a private clinic in the port city complaining of late pay from the state-run social security institute (IESS), the government denied the story with a cadena, and IESS reacted by inspecting labor conditions at Expreso and the clinic.
This week, Cordicom warned media of the need to be careful in reporting on a controversial bill on financial reform. While local media can expect the regulators to step up their investigation of whether they are complying with stringent new minimum local content rules in advertising and radio, government online newswire Andes features advertising in British English by German athletic goods company Adidas. To summarize, “in the past months, the situation of freedom of expression in Ecuador has deteriorated at an accelerated rate, to the point at which it is in danger of definitive extinction,” says local journalism advocacy organization Fundamedios – also an object of harsh government criticism.
Editor’s Note: Ramiro Crespo is Chairman of the Editorial Board of Analytica Investments
Credit: Analytica Investments, Ecuador Weekly Report; Photo caption: President Rafael Correa