With Assange still in Ecuadorean embassy, the country tightens press freedom

A year after Julian Assange sought shelter in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, journalists say a restrictive new media law could make Wikileaks cables illegal to publish in local press.

Dolores Ochoa/AP
Lawmakers from the opposition wearing gags and holding protest posters against the new Communications Act as the screen shows a live image of lawmaker Mauro Andino presenting his proposal for the new Communications Law in Quito, Ecuador, June 14. Last week, Ecuador's National Assembly approved a bill that many say will regulate and constrict content of newspapers and broadcasts.

While Julian Assange remains holed up in Ecuador's London embassy, back in Quito, freedom of expression is high on the agenda. But that's not because of the Wikileak founder's request for asylum. It is instead due to a new controversial media law.

Last week, Ecuador's National Assembly approved a bill that many say will regulate and constrict content of newspapers and broadcasts.

While critics argue the legislation amounts to a clampdown on free speech, government supporters say it is an important step toward achieving balanced reporting.

“Their party is over,” said President Rafael Correa during his weekly radio and TV broadcast after the law's approval. He was referring to the owners of private media, whom he has accused of serving the interest of the country's powerful elites, boycotting his government's attempts at change.

“What are the real objectives of the law? We are not seeking not to have a press, we are seeking to create a good press,” President Correa said.

'A tool'

Governing party congressmen first proposed the communications law in 2009, a year after the approval of a new constitution that mandated the necessity of a new law regulating the media.

Over the past four years, the government did not have a majority in the National Assembly to pass the law. But after last February's election, which gave Correa a third term in power as well as an unprecedented, absolute majority in the legislature, the law was approved in little over an hour.

This represented a victory for Correa, who has made private media a main target in his fight against Ecuador's old political system. He filed several libel suits against private media and at the same time created a large network of state-run media to "balance out" the quality of information.

The bill redistributes frequencies for radio and TV, giving 33 percent to private broadcasters, 33 percent to state media, and 34 percent to community radio stations run mainly by indigenous groups.

The new law updates a media law dating back to 1975, when Ecuador was under a military dictatorship.

“The law is a tool through which Ecuador can start a process to deepen the quality of information, better the professional aspect of journalists, which is positive in a society because it guarantees a democratic coexistence,” said Orlando Perez, director of the state-owned El Telegrafo newspaper, at a recent panel discussion in Quito.

But criticism abounds. Members of the opposition wore gags at the National Assembly, saying the law is trying to silence opposition.

Many journalists are worried, too.

“The law has an excessive eagerness to control and establish norms for the information that media can publish or broadcast. And obviously behind this eagerness there is a political intention to silence independent press,” says Monica Almeida, an editor at El Universo, a private newspaper.

In 2011, Correa filed a libel suit against El Universo after former editor Emilio Palacio wrote a column in which he called the president a "dictator.” The newspaper's three directors and Mr. Palacio were sentenced to three years in jail with fines totaling $40 million.

Correa eventually pardoned the defendants after they were sentenced publicly in a live ceremony, which was translated live in both English and French.

No laughs?

Critics say there are three aspects that particularly worry them about the law.

First, only those who have a degree in journalism will be able to work. Though high professional standards are supported, critics say this could be a barrier in a country where higher education is not very widespread.

Second, “information” is defined with precise words, saying it has to be “verified, opportune, contextualized, and corroborated.” It prohibits “media lynching,” defined as the repeated publication of information that can smear a person's reputation. Some fear this could extend to well-researched reporting on government policies or corruption, interpreting the law broadly. 

(Within the context of the new law, satirical programming like The Daily Show would not be able to be broadcast in Ecuador, says Ms. Almeida.)

Finally, the creation of a media watchdog presided by a representative of the president that can impose fines and force media outlets to issue public apologies.

“Giving the government the power to decide whether or not information is ‘truthful’ will open the door to unlawful censorship. This is an especially alarming provision in a country where the president has a track record of using his powers to target critics in the press,” says José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. 

“This law is yet another effort by President Correa to go after the independent media,” says Mr. Vivanco.

Wikileaks irony?

Ecuador offered Assange asylum and has said it will consider granting asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden, the ex-CIA employee who disclosed the US National Security Agency surveillance program, as well.

Yet, journalists say that the new law would not allow newspapers to publish information leaked by figures such as Assange or Snowden.

Almeida was part of the team that processed the cables that were disclosed to El Universo newspaper by Wikileaks.

“With this new law, we would not be able to publish the cables. There are at least seven articles that would prevent me from doing so,” Almeida says.

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