Hemisphere press group rips restrictive law in Ecuador

A new communications law enacted in Ecuador represents “the most serious setback for freedom of the press and of expression in the recent history of Latin America,” the Inter American Press Association said Monday.

Ecuador’s National Assembly, on a 108 to 26 vote, passed the Communication Organic Law, more commonly known as the gag law, which regulates journalistic content, sets administrative and financial sanctions and establishes a requirement that journalists have a university degree, among other rules “which reduce the free practice of journalism to its lowest expression,” said Claudio Paolillo, chairman of the association’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information.

“This law has been adopted by a government elected by the people and therefore has legitimacy, but its enactment demonstrates very clearly that this same government lacks legitimacy in practice, as the enacted regulations are no different from those set down by the military dictatorships that devastated the region in the 1970s and ’80s. It is the most serious setback for freedom of the press and of expression in the recent history of Latin America,” declared Paolillo, editor of the Montevideo, Uruguay, weekly Búsqueda.

“This law,” Paolillo added, “is the culmination of a government plan that has been under development and has been carried out since Rafael Correa assumed the presidency, and that establishes government censorship in Ecuador, legalizes the concentration of media in government hands, violates all the case law of the Inter-American Human Rights Court regarding freedom of expression, seeks in a direct way to eliminate opinions critical of the government and promotes self-censorship, with serious punishments and prohibitions envisioned in the law for anyone thinking differently than the official government line.”

The law, which includes 119 articles and 23 transitory regulations, establishes in its Article 45 the creation of a communication regulation and development council with powers to punish failures to comply with its requirements. This body will be made up of five members, among whom will be a delegate named by the president, a representative of the “National Equality Councils, another from the citizen participation and social control council, and others from the decentralized autonomous governments, and the ombudsman.

The law also creates the office of superintendent of information and communication, with powers to oversee, audit, intervene in and control media behavior, and that will be in charge of compliance with the law and of the punishments to be meted out. The person heading this office will be chosen by the citizen participation and social control council from a short list of candidates proposed by President Rafael Correa.

It also creates the offense of media lynching, when a media outlet publishes repeated information with the objective of discrediting or reducing the credibility of persons or legal entities. A communiqué from the national assembly stated that “the Office of Superintendent will be able to take – after having confirmed the relevance of the claim – the following administrative measures: public apology and publication in the respective news media outlet”.

Paolillo reiterated that the law “will increase the restrictions on press freedom and the pluralism that it supposedly is seeking to encourage, as well as interfere with news media content.” “We are witnessing a government which aims to silence the critical press and has resorted to a law in which it has named itself judge and jury. The collateral effects that this legislation will bring about, among them the restrictions on information and the self-censorship triggered by fear of reprisals, are of great concern” added Paolillo.

The new regulations also reduces private sector space through a new government distribution of radio and television frequencies, establishing that 34 percent of them be granted to “community” media, 33% to state-owned media, and 33% to privately owned media. According to official figures, currently 68 percent of the news media are privately owned.

At the same time, Article 40 establishes the requirement of a university degree in order to work as a journalist. “Journalistic activity of a permanent nature carried out in the news media at any level or in any job shall have to be performed by professionals or experts in journalism or communication,” with the exception of editorial writers, those writing op-ed pieces and those that publish in indigenous languages. The law allows a six-year period in which to obtain a university degree.

Debate on the original bill for this law began in September 2009 and was suspended in July 2012. The law was passed Friday after seven voting sessions and three and a half years of discussion.

The Inter American Press Association is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the defense and promotion of freedom of the press and of expression in the Americas. It is made up of more than 1,300 publications from throughout the Western Hemisphere and is based in Miami, Florida. The parent firm of A.M. Costa Rica is a member.

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