With Assange Still in Ecuadorean Embassy, the Country Tightens Press Freedom

Article excerpt

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. …