In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa is attempting to wipe out democracy, and he is succeeding. How? By targeting the media. Any good American history scholar knows the lofty rhetoric about the importance of a free press. It’s not just rhetoric. When that freedom disappears, many others follow.
As we watch the situation in Ecuador, we can see democracy crumbling in real time. Last week, Ecuador’s highest court upheld a criminal libel conviction against the country’s leading newspaper, El Universo. Correa filed the lawsuit against the paper’s three owners and its opinion editor, Emilio Palacio, in March of last year. The case goes back to a column Palacio wrote in which he called Correa a dictator.
Earlier this month, two Ecuadoran journalists were found guilty of defamation after alleging that the president’s brother had contracts with the state. They were ordered to pay $2 million in damages to Correa.
These are not the only such cases. They are just the most recent.
Correa is consolidating power, but oddly enough not in an entirely un-democratic way. A Committee to Protect Journalists report from September describes the steps Correa has taken since taking office in 2007. He began tightening his control on the media after he pushed to have the country’s constitution rewritten. And in May of 2011, voters approved carefully worded referendums that damaged press freedom.
Correa is taking a similar stance to that of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who for several years has been setting controls on private media in his country. (For more on the anti-media policies of Ecuador and Venezuela, please see: “The Rapporteur’s Burden: The Battle Over Free Speech at the OAS,” and “Muzzling the Rapporteur: An Attack on a Champion of Free Speech.”) Regulating ownership and suing for defamation are two ways for these leaders to keep the media in their pockets.
Press freedom advocates worry that the clampdown will spread through the Americas.
The unraveling Ecuadoran democracy provides two takeaways.
First, after the events of the Arab Spring, so much focus has been on internet freedom, and rightfully so. But we can’t forget that newspapers, television and radio are not obsolete. In areas of the world with low internet penetration, these media demand greater attention. Democracy cannot exist without freedom in all media.
Second, the democratic process can be manipulated. For a generation that can’t be bothered to read terms of agreement or licenses, this could prove to be a problem. As we saw with the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and are now seeing with Ecuador, the law can deceive us. What sounds beneficial (ending piracy, eliminating corrupt media) can often infringe on our rights. We would do well to think carefully about legislation and referendums involving the media.
(The photo of President Rafael Correa of Ecuador is from Agência Brasil, the government news agency of Brazil; the photo is by Marcello Casal Jr. and is available using a Creative Commons license. To hear a podcast from Latin Pulse, covering the issue of Ecuador’s assault on the media and other issues facing the media in Latin America please click here.)