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IAPA concerned at press freedom restrictions in proposed communications law

(IAPA/IFEX) - Miami (October 19, 2009) - The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) informed government officials in Ecuador of its concern with press bills sent to Congress that would permit control of information and news media content. The organization made its views known during a mission to the country that ended Friday.

IAPA 2nd Vice President Gonzalo Marroquín declared, "We find it of grave concern that the government is pushing this bill for a Communications Law that, in accordance with views expressed by members of Congress and government officials, if passed as currently drafted, would restrict freedom of the press and free speech. That would be a blow to democracy itself."

The IAPA international delegation that spent last Thursday and Friday in Ecuador held a meeting at Carondelet Palace in the capital, Quito, with Communication Secretary General Fernando Alvarado and members of the President's Political Communications Council, including Defense Minister Javier Ponce; Peoples, Social Movements and Citizen Participation Minister Doris Solís Carrión, and President Rafael Correa's Private Secretary Galo Mora.

In a joint press conference at the end of the meeting Alvarado pledged "the unswerving commitment of the government to freedom of expression, access to information and freedom of the press," claiming that what was at issue was not a press law but "the defense of all Ecuadoreans' right to communicate."

In earlier talks with the IAPA, government representatives gave an audiovisual presentation listing alleged ethical errors by media and individual journalists. "That is why" Alvarado explained, "we are convinced that there has to be a law," and went on to voice a complaint by President Correa that journalists were setting themselves up as judges and destroying reputations.

The Communications Law captured the attention of the IAPA delegation, despite the fact it had gone to Quito over the tense relations that have existed between the current administration and the press over complaints of judicial harassment by media and journalists, public dishonoring of media outlets during presidential broadcasts, the placement of official advertising in a discriminatory manner, and, among other issues, the appropriation of privately-owned media for public use.

Marroquín, editor of the Guatemala City, Guatemala, newspaper Prensa Libre, said, "The views of the government and of the IAPA on press freedom differ substantially. They insist on the need to regulate the press through this legislation, as a means of defending the people's rights, while we hold that no person or community can be free without absolute and full freedom of expression. We feel that the broader the people's freedom of expression, the greater democracy and free citizen participation."

Similar concepts were addressed with the governing party's deputy speaker of the National Assembly, Representative Rolando Panchana, and opposition Congressman César Montúfar, the authors of two of the three bills for a Communication Law that are under debate in the National Assembly. The third bill was submitted by opposition Congresswoman Lourdes Tibán. It is expected that the law will be enacted before year-end, in accordance with the constitutional mandate, as part of a reform package that includes 11 laws proposed by President Correa.

With slight variances, the three legislative bills deal with all media outlets, not just broadcast media, and create government agencies to oversee and penalize media. In addition, in order to be registered media will be required to have a code of ethics. These points were harshly criticized by the IAPA, which holds that the government will interfere in content and repress critical journalists and investigators.

The bills create three media equal in footing regarding broadcast licenses: public, community and privately-owned media, which, in the IAPA's experience and given the control that this and other governments have over publicly-owned media, "means that the law would serve to destroy the plurality" that the new legislation seeks to foster.

Mission members also insisted that while the bills "state textually that there should not be prior censorship, rather, subsequent responsibilities", the spirit of the law "does little to ensure international standards regarding press freedom as established under the American Convention on Human Rights."

Gustavo Mohme, head of the IAPA Press Institute and editor of the Lima, Peru, newspaper La República, stated that the bills seek to replace the justice system and laws which "already thoroughly protect citizens from any abuse that a news media outlet might commit," so therefore "there is no need to continue creating regulations."

Former IAPA President Edward Seaton, editor of The Manhattan Mercury, Kansas, said that in order to understand just how dangerous this law is "the government should think again about what a government such as that of Febres Cordero would have been able to do had it had similar legislation at hand."

The IAPA delegation concluded that "this bill is restrictive and would create government censorship, encourage self-censorship and limit investigative reporting along with its claims of corruption; it would gut the role of the press in a democracy."

Alvarado also expressed reservations about the proposal of government party Congressman Panchana. He said the government would review that particular proposal because it does not agree with annual registration and believes that any investigation under way should be limited. "We want professionalism, but there should be no censorship or in-house censorship between the media and their own journalists," he said.

In its conversations with government representatives the IAPA also raised the issue of the journalists murdered in the country and delivered a note addressed to President Correa asking that the necessary steps be taken to coordinate and fully solve the killings of Augusto García, José Luis León, Raúl Suárez Sandoval and Raúl Rodríguez Coronel committed between 2005 and this year.

During its two-day stay in the Ecuadorean capital the IAPA also met with members of the Ecuadorean Association of Newspaper Editors and Publishers (AEDEP) and representatives of news media social and academic organizations, among them the Andean Foundation of the Observance and Study of Media (Fundamedios), the International Center of Higher Communication Studies for Latin America (CIESPAL) and the National Journalists Union (UNP).

In addition to Marroquín, Seaton and Mohme the IAPA mission was included Executive Director Julio E. Muñoz and Press Freedom Director Ricardo Trotti.

The representatives of the hemisphere organization announced that the results of the Quito visit would be dealt with in depth during the upcoming IAPA General Assembly, along with other press issues, from November 6-10 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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