Page last updated at 21:07 GMT, Thursday, 10 December 2009

Moves to regulate media cause stir in Ecuador

By Irene Caselli

Ecuador President Rafael Correa in file photo from 2008
President Rafael Correa has had strained relations with the media

Attempts to introduce a new media law in Ecuador are proving a headache for President Rafael Correa and his Alianza Pais party.

The proposed legislation has caused such a stir that people from across the political spectrum, journalists and members of civil society are opposing it.

Ecuador's Legislative Assembly was due to hold a first debate on the law on Thursday despite huge divisions over the draft version.

But on Wednesday Fernando Cordero, the assembly's president and a member of the Alianza Pais governing party, decided to postpone the debate indefinitely to give deputies time to revise the proposed bill.

The decision was hailed as a political victory by members of the opposition who were trying to block the bill, which they believe is a move by the president to silence them.

They have renamed the bill "Ley Mordaza" or Gag Law.

What is clear is that President Correa has had strained relations with the media since first coming to office in 2007.

The two sides have exchanged strong words - the president using his weekly radio and TV shows as his main platform to attack the media, and the media voicing its criticism through editorials and opinion pieces.

When he was sworn in for a second term last August, Mr Correa described the media as his "greatest enemy" during his first term as president, and a major obstacle to implementing reforms. He has also regularly referred to journalists as "corrupt, mediocre, shameless".

Journalism degree

During a demonstration in favour of freedom of expression on Wednesday, Carlos Vera, a well-known former news presenter who has started an anti-Correa campaign, said the government had decided to postpone the debate because it was too "scared and exposed" to go ahead with it.

Woman with face painted with a tear during a demonstration for press freedom in Quito on 9 December
Opponents say the new bill will introduce too many restrictions

"It is impossible to improve it, so they will have to start again from scratch," he told hundreds of supporters gathered in a park in the centre of the capital, Quito.

One of the key and most contentious provisions of the bill would mean only people who have a journalism degree would be able to work in the media.

The legislation also seeks to create a watchdog that would supervise the media and their content and would be able to sanction and even shut down an outlet in case of repeat offences.

Rolando Panchana, an assembly member for Alianza Pais and one of the bill's main backers, says the current law, passed in 1975 under the military rule of General Guillermo Rodriguez Lara, is restrictive and undemocratic.

He points out that the new constitution, passed in 2008, establishes the need to create a new media law in the country.

"This bill is not perfect, we still need to work on it," says Mr Panchana. "Compared to what we have now, it makes a huge difference."

But the opposition says the 1975 law only regulates radio and TV, while the proposed new law has a wider scope as it includes written media as well.

In the 1975 law there is also no mention of an obligatory qualification for journalists, they say.

Permitting only those with a degree in journalism to work in the media, the law would further limit citizen journalism and the freedom of expression of small and remote indigenous communities, according to the Network of Popular and Educational Radios in Ecuador (Corape).


The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has also voiced concern.

Its special rapporteur for freedom of expression, Catalina Botero, in a letter to the head of the assembly this week, said that the proposed media watchdog would not have enough "autonomy, independence and impartiality" to apply sanctions to the media and hence guarantee freedom of expression.

For Cesar Montufar, member of the Concertacion Nacional Democratica opposition party and one of the main opponents of the current proposal, the decision to postpone the debate took place because the government majority in the assembly caved in.

"[Alianza Pais] finally recognised that the draft was not even ready for a first debate," he told the BBC. "It's a positive sign, a sign of good sense on their part."

He hopes that the special commission in charge of putting together the draft, of which he is a member, will now have the opportunity to make some real changes.

"Mobilisation creates pressure. As long as we keep mobilising, we will have the strength to create some positive changes in the law," he says.

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