In Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa’s latest attempt to restrict freedom of the press on June 14th, a communications law was put into effect that sets new limitations on independent media in Ecuador. The “Ley Mordaza” or Gag Law was adopted without debate by a National Assembly dominated by Correa’s members.
Its provisions include:
- Journalists can’t criticize anyone (including Correa himself), for fear of fines and criminal prosecution
- Information must be vetted by the government prior to publication
- Press must only release information that respects state security and must mention specific issues deemed to be of public interest
The first of these provisions, whereby anything that “directly or through a third party… is published… with the intent of discrediting another person… or reducing his/her public credibility” seems to serve as a response to Correa’s oft voiced fears that he is the victim of slander in the Ecuadorian media. The United Nations, and international bodies in the Americas and Europe, have long criticized the use of criminal penalties for journalists that speak out against public officials.
As for government inspection of press information, this practice is at odds with the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, which states that “[p]rior conditioning of expressions, such as truthfulness, timeliness, or impartiality is incompatible with the right to freedom of expression recognized in international instruments.”
Ecuador and Media Oppression
According to Human Rights Watch, the communications law “seriously undermines free speech” and “includes overly broad language that will limit the free expression of journalists and media outlets.” Yet even before its passage, Ecuador ranked 119th in Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 World Press Freedom Index, down 15 places from 2012 “after a year of extreme tension between the government and leading privately-owned media.” During that year, Ecuador’s telecommunications office closed 11 stations in a three month period, over half of which had been critical of the government.
The day after the law’s passage, Correa gave his weekly televised speech in which he hailed the law as one that “democratizes property and access to the news media.” And indeed this was its original intention when submitted to the National Assembly in 2009. Historically, Ecuador’s media has been owned largely by wealthy elites, and in 2009, 85 percent of radio and 70 percent of television were owned by private companies. The law should have redistributed ownership between private, public, and community groups at 33 percent each.
Yet in the following years Correa made it clear through his actions that the law was not intended to promote equality, unleashing a multifaceted assault on Ecuadorian press in order to silence dissent. In 2011, he sentenced Emilio Palacio, a former top editor at El Universo, to three years imprisonment following an editorial he penned criticizing Correa. The President later pardoned Palacio after having made his point. Since then, Wikileaks mastermind Julian Assange was granted political asylum in Ecuador in 2012, and National Security whistleblower Edward Snowden is next in line. Yet these allowances haven’t seemed to temper the ongoing war against free speech in Ecuador.