Voters decide Saturday on constitutional revisions; judicial reform, press ownership and bullfights are top issues

May 6, 2011

Ecuador voters will vote on 10 constitutional reforms, including a bullfighting ban and measures that critics claim is an attack on the free press. Two recent polls predict that voters will approve all the proposed reforms.

The top issue on the ballot, however, involves restructuring Ecuador´s judicial system. If voters approve, a five-member council with a six-year mandate will be established to appoint top judges.

Correa says change is needed because of corruption within the judicial system which, he says, has resulted in increasing crime rates in many parts of the country. “We see too many suspects of violent crime being released on the streets,” he says. “If we don´t make a change Ecuador will see crime like Colombia and Mexico. We have to root out the corruption that has dominated the system for years.”

Correa, in office since 2007, is also seeking to ban bullfighting and gambling.

Authorities have however dropped a controversial measure seeking to also ban cockfighting.

The bullfighting measure could be the most contentious for voters: Ecuador is one of the foremost bullfighting sites in Latin America, hosting 400 annual events in an industry that brings in some 50 million dollars a year.

Some 30,000 jobs rely directly on the blood sport, industry officials say.

Correa is also hoping to amend the constitution to restrict investment in local media. Critics say the move is a veiled attempt to muzzle dissent.

The divestment effort is also aimed at preventing media from investing in banks, and vice versa.

The 2008 constitution passed during Correa's term has already barred banks from owning media outlets.

Diego Cornejo, chief of the National Newspaper Editors' board, claims the effort would violate basic business rights.

If there were a wave of media sell-offs with banks unable to take part, many smaller media outlets could end up in state hands, with state control over editorial content, he said.

"We are not defending the right of bankers to own media, rather we are defending freedom of thought and the right not to be censored," said Marcel Rivas of the local television channels' association (ACTVE).

The referendum also seeks a media law that would set up a council to regulate violent, sexually explicit and potentially discriminatory content.

Media workers have expressed outrage at the move because it would hold individual journalists criminally responsible for such violations.

Correa, who has torn up newspapers at public events and tarred some columnists as "ink-stained hitmen," has argued: "There is no freedom without responsibility. And these guys want total, unfettered power."

In March Correa filed multimillion-dollar libel suits against three newspaper executives and three journalists in what has become an escalating war with the media in recent months.

Editors and journalists insist those cases, like the proposed media laws, are a clear attempt to stifle free speech.

Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino denied the allegations, saying: "This government has decided to lead, and some media do not support that."

In a speech on Wendesday in Cuenca, Correa complained that the media has distorted the intent of the referendum and has not provided accurate information about the ballot items.

“They say I want to become a dictator but they don´t report what the proposals are all about,” he said. “They say I am ending freedom of speech and say I want to put journalists in jail but I can point out that there are no journalists in Ecuadorian jails, not a single one. If the voters understand the issues they will know that this election is not about me, it´s about making life better for Ecuadorians.”

Credit: Bloomberg News, www.bloomberg.com, Herald Sun, Melbourne, Australia, www.heraldsun.com.au, contributing; photo caption: President Correa stumping for constitutional revisions.

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