National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden’s alleged flight to Ecuador in search of asylum comes days after Quito's passage of major legislation that could reduce transparency and freedom of the press. In a 108-137 vote, Ecuador’s Nation Assembly passed the country’s new Communications Law on June 14. Characterized by Ecuador’s association of newspaper publishers as a way to “strip citizens of the right to freedom of expression and of the right of access to information,” the law establishes norms for the press and government offices to monitor the media. President Rafael Correa signed the bill on June 21, and defended the legislation, saying it “seeks a free and independent press that informs and communicates, but does not defend private interests.”
Government Oversight and Media Ownership
The law, which has been under debate since 2009, sets up two new government bodies. The Media Regulation Council will set standards for media content for print, online, radio, and TV outlets. The Office of Information and Communication will monitor media outlets and fine those out of compliance with the law.
In addition to government oversight, the law establishes new regulations for media ownership. First, the legislation prohibits the concentration of TV and radio stations, though it does not revoke licenses for current stations, allowing existing channels to stay on air. It does, however, divide radio frequencies, giving 33 percent to state media, 33 percent to private broadcasters, and 34 percent to indigenous groups. “Never again [will there be] monopolies,” said Congressman Mauro Andino, the author of the law.
New Rules for Journalists and Media Outlets
Next, the law establishes new regulations for media content and journalists. “Media lynching”—or attacking someone’s character—is banned. The legislation also prohibits religious and racial hate speech and language that incites violence. The media is also forbidden from the "deliberate omission of...topics of public interest," though it does not define what these topics are. “Journalists may have to pay far more attention to ribbon-cutting ceremonies and other government PR events,” writes journalist John Otis for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “But [the] wording is so vague that nearly any action by local, state, or national government official could be considered of public interest.” In addition, the law says that: “It is everyone’s right that information of public interest received through the media should be verified, balanced, contextualized, and opportune.” In order to work as a journalist, one must obtain a college degree in journalism, the law says.
The legislation also sets rules for cadenas, or government messages that must be broadcast on TV and radio. Public officials are entitled to five minutes of airtime per week, though the president and National Assembly speaker may use cadenas “when they consider it necessary.”
Some of the rules could be beneficial, however. Media outlets cannot practice “prior censorship.” This is when a person outside of the publication or channel—such as a public official or advertiser—changes, approves, or disapproves content in order to gain an advantage or cause harm to another person. The law also reserves the right for journalists to withhold names of their sources.
Media Outlets: Facing Fines
The law gives citizens the right to appeal to media outlets if incorrect information is published about them. In turn, these outlets must publish corrections within 72 hours. The Media Regulation Council can request that media issue apologies and fine outlets who fail to publish corrections. Publications and channels also face fines for using discriminatory language, inciting violence, or taking a position on those involved in a legal investigation or on trial. Some fines are based on the minimum wage, requiring companies to pay between one to 20 times this amount. Others are based on the media outlet’s average quarterly revenue, ranging from one to 10 percent of this amount.
Under the legislation, media outlets will also be financially responsible in libel cases, which could draw higher fines. In 2011, Correa sued newspaper El Universo in a $40 million libel lawsuit, a decision upheld last year. This month, the president also warned of a libel lawsuit against Quito newspaper Hoy.