In recent years, Latin America has seen an overall shift away from media independence and freedom of the press — only one in 50 Latin Americans live in free media environments, according to Freedom House, even though the majority of Latin American countries are still democracies. The biggest drop — 15 points in the last five years — was in Ecuador, a clear illustration of the problems that can occur when democratically elected leaders curtail media freedom.
After Rafael Correa took office on a wave of populist charisma in 2007, the Ecuadorian media began to realize that they needed to watch themselves due to various acts against independent media that alleged corruption in the Correa family or the Correa administration. These attacks against press freedom were formally legalized with the Organic Law on Communications, passed in 2012 without open debate in the National Assembly or among civil society.
This law, which Correa lauded as a step toward the democratization of media and a strengthening of freedom of expression as it broke up a near-monopoly of news sources owned by a single family, also opened the door to greater state intervention in the media.
The major concern for media outlets is that many aspects of the law were left ambiguous, allowing for broad interpretation and arbitrary application. For instance, Article 26 of the law prohibits “media lynching” and allows public officials being investigated for corruption by the media to sue the journalist or the newspaper doing the investigating. Article 71 of the law defines information as a “public good” equal to water quality and electricity, and therefore subject to increased regulation by the state.
The most recent case of the Correa administration battling perceived defamation in the media is that of Xavier Bonilla, a political cartoonist known by the pen name Bonil.
Bonil’s cartoon depicting police and prosecutors visiting the home of Fernando Villavicencio under the pretense of presenting a Christmas gift and then breaking down his door and making off with Villavicencio’s computers and documentation of corruption was published in El Universo on December 28, 2013 – days after police and prosecutors actually did go to Villavicencio’s home and confiscate his work. Villavicencio is accused of espionage for possessing internal emails belonging to senior government officials, which he asserts proved allegations of corruption.
Following the publication of his cartoon, Bonil was called before the Superintendent of Information and Communication (“Supercom”) – an agency created by the 2012 communications law. The Supercom accused Bonil of supporting “social agitation” and President Correa ordered him to print a correction of his political cartoon. Bonil ultimately published an edited cartoon of the same exchange, this time a tongue-in-cheek caricature of the interaction –with Villavicencio placing complete trust in the “legitimate authority” and “total independence” of the prosecutors. (Bonil discussed the allegations at a recent National Endowment for Democracy event about the new law [in Spanish])
These events in Ecuador come on the heels of President Correa’s 2011 battle against a columnist of the same newspaper, Emilio Palacio. Palacio accused Correa of crimes against humanity for using military personnel to rescue him during a police mutiny in the fall of 2010, which resulted in several military deaths.
Correa won a libel case to the tune of $40 million, and three years in jail for Palacio and the newspapers’ editors, which is currently being appealed. This and the Bonil case are not unique instances of President Correa using the courts and the communications law to defend his honor and that of his family.
Overall, the current environment for the press in Ecuador is now one of self-censorship, with journalists and news outlets avoiding outright accusations of corruption and bad behavior, for fear of a legal judgment that could bankrupt them, as would be the case with El Universo should the judgement be upheld in appeals. Freedom House currently scores Ecuador at 62, or not free, behind just Honduras, Venezuela, and Cuba, and it doesn’t appear that the Correa administration is backing off on the issue.
A free and diverse media is an essential ingredient to democracy and the trend in Latin America is away from a robust and independent press. Without this key democratic institution, corruption prevails, powerful elites concentrate power, and the political stability of a nation erodes.
Ecuadorian civil society, and that of the global community, are the defense against such attacks on freedom. By calling attention to the violations of the human right to expression and information, civil society and the media strengthen the voices of those being silenced by such laws as Ecuador’s.
Laura Boyette is Program Coordinator for Latin America & the Caribbean at CIPE.