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Ecuadorian media face reporting restrictions during campaign

(IPI/IFEX) - 25 Jan, 2013 - Where does accurate reporting on a presidential candidate end and “indirect” promotion of the candidate begin? That's the question facing Ecuadorean media outlets as they try to navigate an ambiguous legal landscape ahead of the country's Feb. 17th presidential vote.

The confusion began last February, when current leader as well as election front-runner Rafael Correa exercised his line-item veto power to modify a bill reforming the country's electoral law (known as the “Democracy Code”) by introducing new restrictions on media campaign coverage. Most notably, the revised wording of Article 203 required the media to “refrain from promoting, directly or indirectly, whether through special reports or any other form” any particular candidate or ballot option.

The Ecuadorean Association of Newspaper Publishers (ADEPA) together with Fundamedios, a local press freedom group, sued, claiming the changes violated the press's constitutional right to free expression. Last October, Ecuador's Constitutional Court agreed that the government could not regulate “information or opinion”, but upheld the prohibition against “indirect promotion” — without explaining what the term actually meant.

The Court later attempted to clarify the matter, suggesting that newspapers must give equal space to all candidates, prompting even further uncertainty (ADEPA's president, Diego Cornejo, wondered whether newspapers were prohibited from reporting on candidates outside the electoral context). Moreover, the National Electoral Commission (CNE) has declined to issue guidelines, despite the fact it is the body tasked with overseeing compliance with Article 203.

“The CNE could issue sanctions for information that the body subjectively considers indirect advertising or indirect promotion,” Cornejo told the International Press Institute (IPI). He added that while the CNE has not yet attempted to control content, “the risk still exists, which is causing certain actions in the media industry, some of which could be considered self-censorship.”

“IPI opposes any undue restrictions on the media's right to report on elections, particularly those that open themselves up to interpretation,” said IPI Deputy Director Anthony Mills. “The term 'indirect promotion' as included in Article 203 is highly subjective and leaves the door open for those who want to silence or punish critical media coverage of next month's election.”

The lack of clarity about what the media can and cannot cover raises the spectre of further criminal trials against journalists in Ecuador. Last year, the multimillion-dollar criminal libel verdict against the newspaper El Universo made international headlines, as did a similar civil judgment against the authors of the investigative book Big Brother.

But IPI also highlighted two other cases that could bear upon coverage of the elections. Last October, Vistazo magazine was fined $80,000 for spreading “political propaganda” after it published an editorial in May 2011 urging its readers to reject elements of a popular referendum held three days later. The following month, a judge ordered the newspaper La Hora to publicly apologise to President Correa for an article containing “inexact” information. The article in question had quoted an Ecuadorean pro-democracy NGO as reporting that the president had spent over $71 million on official advertising since January of that year.

Fundamedios recently released a guide to covering the elections, which contains tips on how journalists can maintain impartiality. César Ricaurte, Fundamedios executive director, explained to IPI that the guide was necessary “given the new legal restrictions against the press and the environment of risk, especially regarding the possibility of legal actions against the media and journalists."

IPI is concerned that the challenging environment for Ecuadorean reporters could lead to a reduction in critical coverage of the elections. A report released on Jan. 23 by the Ecuadorean Media Observatory (OME), a Fundamedios project, stated that 93.5% of 417 press articles analysed were “merely descriptive” and focused on procedural elements of the campaign.

The report also indicated that coverage of the candidates themselves, though increasing in general, was off to an unequal start. 5.5% of articles featured President Correa, a figure more than double that of his two closest competitors, Lucio Gutiérrez and Guillermo Lasso, at 2.8 and 2.6%, respectively.

The run-up to the election season, which officially began on Jan. 4, has also seen President Correa sharpen the kind of rhetorical attacks against the private press for which he has become well known. This past November, he suggested in an interview that freedom of expression should be “a function of the state”, to prevent what he called the “abuses” of a “corrupt press.” Earlier this month, the president declared that, if re-elected, he would continue to “defend the people from a press that manipulates and misinforms.”

Fundamedios has also reported on the president's continued use of cadenas — addresses that all television and radio stations are required to broadcast — to harshly criticse the private media. One such radio cadena in late December lasted three hours; during that time, Correa accused the newspapers El Universo and El Comercio, among others, of trying to “manipulate the public to keep [Correa's party] from winning,” and questioned Fundamedios's statistics on violence against journalists.

In late December, a judge denied an request, brought by Fundamedios and the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador, to overturn a presidential order phohibiting government ministers from giving interview to private media. The ruling determined that the order did not affect “citizens' constitutional right to information.”

“Elections constitute the very heart of a democracy,” contended Mills, “and it is the duty of the press – whether public or private – to report accurately on the candidates, without governmental interference, so that citizens can make an informed choice. We call on President Correa to respect the media's role in a democratic society and its right to express opinons about matters of public interest; likewise, we ask the National Electoral Commission to err on the side of press freedom when examining compliance with the Democracy Code.”

An IPI delegation, led by Mills, travelled to Ecuador on a press-freedom mission last May. A subsequent report stated that the country was in the midst of a “press freedom crisis” characterised by numerous retaliatory legal actions against journalists and Correa administrations's systematic employment of offensive rhetoric designed to tarnish the reputations of critical journalists, publishers, and press freedom groups.

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