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Two years on, Ecuador's Communications Act still one of the region's worst

Just a few days before the second anniversary of the enactment of Ecuador's Organic Communication Law the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) called on the international community, especially the Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly, to be cognizant of "the flagrant abuse by the government of Rafael Correa of the public's right to be informed and against the right to work of independent journalists and privately-owned and news media in his country."

June 23 marks two years since enactment of the Communication Law, which the IAPA has described as "an instrument of inquisition that turned President Correa into the principal censor in the Americas." The organization has criticized this legislation since Correa proposed it four years ago, predicting that it would be used to silence his political opponents, the independent press, and members of the public in their use of social media and the Internet.

The IAPA has been insisting that this law is illegitimate, that it is applied in a discriminatory manner against independent media and journalists, through agencies answering to the Executive Branch, with the explicit aim of censuring the free flow of information and the different currents of public opinion. In cases of prior censorship during recent months, the IAPA has offered solidarity with several media and journalists that defied the government, by not accepting the punishments, based on their constitutional right to resist.

"We were not mistaken," said IAPA President Gustavo Mohme, "we knew that this law would make censorship official and that the public would be the big loser, through restrictions on their right to be duly informed."

Mohme, referring to the speech this week by the new OAS Secretary General, Uruguay's Luis Amargo, during the opening of the organization's 45th General Assembly in Washington, DC, called for a "positive agenda", and stated that "there is nothing more positive than that this body begin to demand of the governments that they comply with the Inter-American Democratic Charter."

Mohme, editor of the Lima, Peru, newspaper La República, said that in this new phase of the OAS, in which it is hoped that it will be more effective, "there should be a greater commitment to the understanding that without freedom of the press and of expression there cannot be true democracy, as the Charter states."

The IAPA pointed out that statistics of sanctions so far clearly show how the Communication Law is being applied in a discriminatory manner and as a shield for officials, many of whom use it as a means of reprisal against those who criticize their work. Of the 270 cases between 2013 and February this year, 231 were against privately-owned media, and 142 of them based on formal complaints filed by authorities and officials.

As a result of these cases and other actions of governmental pressure, a magazine - Vanguardia - three newspapers - Hoy, La Hora de Manabí and Diario Meridiano - and dozens of radio stations were shut down during this period.

The IAPA has also criticized this law for the lack of independence of the bodies responsible for enforcing it - the Superintendency of Information and Communication (Supercom), and the Communication Council (Cordicom), which are subject to the directives imposed by President Correa. Among the punishments imposed are the publication of obligatory rectifications, public apologies by the media's editor, and fines which are increased in case of "recurrence".

This was the case with El Universo , which Supercom ordered to pay a fine equivalent to 10% of its average billing in the past three months (approximately $350,000), because the newspaper had published only a portion of a reply and it had changed the headline. El Universo asserted its constitutional right to resist.

The chairman of the IAPA's Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Claudio Paolillo, said that the IAPA "supports the media when they decide to challenge regulations which, while they may be legal are not always fair, especially when they violate universal rights to freedom of the press and of expression."

He added that "the dictatorships of Pinochet, Stroessner, Videla, Trujillo, Fujimori and Somoza, to cite some cases, also had their legality against freedom of expression. But that did not mean that, because they acted under said legality, they were legitimate acts."

Paolillo, editor of the Montevideo, Uruguay, weekly Búsqueda, added, "We media and journalists have the duty to challenge official censorship, whatever its name, to dispel criticisms about being subservient to authoritative and totalitarian regimes."

Mohme and Paolillo, in another reference to recent speeches in the OAS, said that no one can remain indifferent before a law enacted at the whim of President Correa that established the offense of "media lynching," in order to counteract criticisms of his governance.

"In addition - they declared - the international community has allowed the Ecuadorean government the unthinkable, which is to legislate that information is a "public service", a perfect justification and excuse. This way it can cut off the information and dealt with it as the government wishes, as if it were water, electricity or health services."

The IAPA also noted that this legislation erased with a stroke of the pen the government's obligations to its citizens, eliminating the 2004 Law on Transparency and Access to Public Information. It further indicated that last September the Constitutional Court threw out litigation claiming this law to be unconstitutional.

Thus, just as once the regime of former president Hugo Chávez sought to export the concept of "truthful information", which in the Venezuelan Constitution was used to regulate censorship of the media, the Correa government sought in the Latin American Parliament ("Parlatino") insertion of a clause defining information as a "public service". The parliament flatly rejected it.

The current situation against the press has led NGOs, local journalists and media to call on international bodies to travel to Ecuador to "experience on site the seriousness of the situation in which journalists must work." The request was presented to 14 international organizations that watch over freedom of expression, and to the United Nations and OAS Special Rapporteurs for Freedom of Expression.

They stated that in Ecuador "there has been imposed a silent, but very effective, regime of prior censorship that is strangling news media and silencing journalists day after day."

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