By Reporters Without Borders -- (Wednesday, September 7th, 2011)
President Rafael Correa Delgado
Dear President Correa,
Reporters Without Borders, an international organization that defends freedom of expression, recently referred to the mounting tension between you and some of the privately-owned media, tension that was exacerbated by the daily El Universo’s prosecution at your request. We fear that this polarization could affect not only editorial pluralism but also the needed debate about media and communication in Ecuadorean society. The situation requires clear decisions from you.
You have displayed a paradoxical attitude since the 20 July court decision against El Universo and three of its representatives. Their appeal against the ruling has been followed an appeal by your lawyers on the grounds that the damages award of 40 million dollars was much less than the 80 million dollars requested. The damages award, which was still exorbitant in our view, was accompanied by prison sentences for the three defendants.
While maintaining the case against El Universo, you have nonetheless said that you do not want to see the three journalists detained at all costs. You also took the trouble to write to the newspaper’s staff on 28 August to say that “I would never allow [the newspaper’s] workers to be the victims of the bad faith and irresponsibility of those who, while running a media business, have believed themselves to also be the owners of people’s honour.”
Reporters Without Borders has never denied that some journalists are very aggressive towards you, sometimes outrageously so. We also understand how you felt personally wounded when your response to the police uprising of 30 September 2010 prompted the astonishing accusation of “crime against humanity,” giving rise to this prosecution.
The position of Reporters Without Borders on this episode was clear from the outset. We nonetheless point out that the mutiny was never supported or encouraged by the media that criticize or oppose your government, although such has unfortunately been the case in other countries in the hemisphere.
The events of 30 September 2010 should above all not be used as grounds for systematic hostility towards some of the media, hostility that existed already but has increased since then. The damages you are demanding from El Universo encourage self-censorship. You cannot maintain this demand and at the same time reassure the newspaper’s staff. It is time to choose, and your decision will not affect just this case, which is not the only one of its kind.
You cannot continue to hope to create a new pluralist order in your country or to promote a balance between different kinds of media while at the same time continuing to respond in such an extreme and intransigent manner to the least criticism against you in the media. A revolution or a war with the media – the choice is yours.
Reporters Without Borders tried to offer a fair and considered analysis of the initial version of the proposed media law. The debate on this future law is now resuming after a long period of controversy. The bill needs major amendments, including the decriminalization of media offences and strict limitation of the kinds of content that will be regulated or banned (including pedophilia, direct appeals for hatred, racism or discrimination, and incitement of violence). The aim of promoting “exact, opportune and contextualized news coverage” must also be dropped.
More generally, this bill cannot be debated and approved without rapid resolution of the following issues:
- A pluralistic balance between state-owned, privately-owned and community media, which we support, requires guarantees not only of redistribution of media ownership but also media independence. What will become of the 12 privately-owned media outlets -added to the 7 state-owned- that were recently “impounded” (incautados) by the state? How much autonomy will they eventually be granted?
Pluralism would be poorly served if a state media oligopoly were to replace a privately-owned commercial media oligopoly, especially if public-service media or media under the state’s financial control are confused with state media that just say what the government says. This kind of dependence is no more desirable that the real conflicts of interest in the privately-owned media.
- It is no longer acceptable that broadcast frequencies are granted and withdrawn at the whim of the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL). A thorough reform is needed to ensure that frequencies are fairly distributed. We were amazed by the unilateral suspension of the Amazonian TV station Telesangay’s licence on 8 August. The owners of the station, which had been licensed since 13 May 2009, insist it was complying with all the technical requirements. If the problem really was a technical one, as CONATEL claims, wouldn’t it have been preferable to give the station a deadline to comply with the required standards instead of closing it down outright?
- Finally, the debate that we, like you, desire is doomed if a climate of confrontation or hate a continues, a climate in which the government responds with offensive official messages (“cadenas”) in the broadcast media to every critical editorial. You are not well served if your press departments just imitate your worst detractors or, even less, if they accuse all the media of “plotting” or “trying to overthrow” you, the country’s elected and legitimate president.
This warped and abusive recourse to radio and TV announcements consisting of personal attacks does not fulfil a public information purpose. They need to be regulated as soon as possible. The NGO Citizen Participation calculated that, in July alone, the Office of the President invested the equivalent of 163,000 dollars on often very aggressive messages and communiqués with a combined broadcast time of more than an hour.
The watchdog role played by the media, or NGOs, does not necessarily mean that they are your “enemy.” This is why we are offering you these recommendations. We hope that you will act on them.
Reporters Without Borders secretary-general