Archives: July, 2010

The Ecuadorian Government’s Campaign against the Free Press

The World Cup is over but not the Ecuadorian government’s propaganda campaign vilifying the free press.

For those Ecuadorians who don’t have Direct TV, but only have cable TV or the local network channels, the only place to have watched the much-awaited matches was on one of the state-owned TV stations and with constant state propaganda. (You can watch the videos depicting the private press as a snake or as shooting bullets coming out of the TV here, here, here and here.)

When I say constant, I might be understating the frequency: according to Infomedia — a media monitoring company— during the weekend of June 18-20 these ads were broadcasted 414 times for a total of 7,988 seconds or 133 minutes.

To make matters worse, the ads continue to be aired at the same time the not-so-independent National Assembly is debating a new communications law that would create a Communications Council — controlled by the executive branch — with the power to impose severe sanctions on radio and TV stations and newspapers.

For starters, the proposed law contains this contradictory statement in its preamble:

Every person … has the right to … search, receive, exchange and distribute information that is truthful, appropriate, contextualized, plural and without previous censorship…

Of course, it will be up to the council to decide what is truthful (and appropriate, contextualized and plural, whatever that means).

Additionally, the Council would have the power to impose sanctions on TV and radio stations and the written press, including fees of 1-10% of the average sales of the media company during the previous three months. The long list of actions that could provoke a sanction includes the following:

  • not complying with the obligation to broadcast at least 40% of nationally produced material during the daily programming schedule;
  • broadcasting or publishing ads that “provoke violence, discrimination, racism, addiction to a drug, religious or political intolerance and all publicity that threatens human rights”;
  • broadcasting commercials that do not “promote consumption that is social and environmentally sustainable”

Again, the government-controlled Council will judge whether media stations are in compliance.

Moreover, the proposed law stipulates that several positions (editors, general directors, news directors, reporters) at TV and radio stations and newspapers be held by individuals with college degrees in communications and journalism. 

The current communications regime also gives similar powers to a body charged with regulating radio and TV stations, but at least on paper, it is not controlled by the executive branch and does not have the power to impose sanctions on the written press. Even so, the current communications regulation was drafted by a military dictatorship in the 1970s and partly amended since the return to democracy in 1979.  President Correa relied on the content control provisions of the law — mostly ignored since 1979 — to shut down privately owned Teleamazonas TV for three days last year.

The Ecuadorian penal and civil codes already define sanctions for individuals who commit libel. These codes, applicable to all citizens, have been useful for Correa’s government: the op-ed page editor of El Universo, Emilio Palacio, was sued by one of Correa’s allies (Camilo Samán, the president of one of the state-owned banks) and convicted to three years in prison for libel (more on that here). Palacio appealed and then Samán mysteriously lifted all charges against the accused a couple of days before Hillary Clinton met with Correa in Quito.

During the last week of the World Cup, the editors-in-chief of the country’s main newspapers published public letters to the secretary of communications of the presidency (read them here, here, and here), Fernando Alvarado, in which they protested being accused in the government propaganda of being “thieves,” promoting “violence” and lying. The editors also demanded that Alvarado specify which media outlet is guilty of these charges and on what precise occasion they committed these punishable crimes. Guadalupe Mantilla, the editor-in-chief of El Comercio stated in her letter that this regrettable abuse of public funds for propaganda has been characterized “by an aggressiveness never before seen in Ecuador during a democratic regime.”

The government reacted to these letters with another offensive ad on TV that was aired during the Spain vs. Germany match. Last week, the Ecuadorian Association of Newspaper Editors issued a statement, endorsed by the country’s 12 most important newspapers and magazines, that read: “This attack from the executive branch happens at a time when the National Assembly is about to approve a new Communications Law … that flouts all international principles and agreements pertaining to rights and freedoms. Given these facts and given the lack of independence of the judiciary, we affirm that freedom of expression continues to be violated in Ecuador…”

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing Government, we focused on the following issues this week:

  • Thanks to the postal unions, the U.S. Postal Service’s utilization of part-time workers is below UPS, FedEx, and its international counterparts.
  • Senate Republicans want agitated voters to view their support for a discretionary spending cap as evidence that the party is serious about out-of-control spending and deficits. But capping discretionary spending at the already exorbitant levels that Republicans helped reach isn’t exactly a big reform.
  • Republicans and Democrats are both guilty of abusing the “emergency” designation to ram through more spending.
  • HUD secretary Shaun Donovan calls public housing a “precious asset.” We’re not joking.
  • Does anyone think the White House economic team was going to produce estimates that didn’t show substantial job creation resulting from the stimulus?

Cops and Cameras: The Future of Policing

The USA Today editorial board is criticizing the use of state wiretapping laws to prosecute citizens who tape on-duty police officers. I have written on this extensively: here, here, here and here. The editorial joins the Washington Examiner and Washington Post in this critique.

USA Today’s opposing view (presented by two AFL-CIO police union officials) provides this comment:

In today’s environment, police officers have to assume that every action they take is captured on tape, somewhere. They must be comfortable that everything they say or do in the course of their duties may be shown on the 5 o’clock news.

Our problem is not so much with the videotaping as it is with the inability of those with no understanding of police work to clearly and objectively interpret what they see. Videotapes frequently do not show what occurred before or after the camera was on, and the viewer has no idea what may have triggered the incident or what transpired afterwards.

This is often true. The recordings that prompt public outcry are sometimes “gotcha” moments where the camera only captures the use of force with no context.

Here is an example from Maryland that shows officers arresting a woman during the Preakness Stakes. At the end of the video, an officer says to the person recording the arrest: “Do me a favor and turn that off. It’s illegal to videotape anybody’s voice or anything else, against the law in the state of Maryland.”

As the USA Today editorial notes, this is a misreading of Maryland law that is kept alive by the prosecution of Anthony Graber and others who record the police. My commentary on the issue is here. As Carlos Miller points out, Maryland prosecutors come to different conclusions about the scope of the state’s wiretap law.

The real problem (besides the fact that the officer is misstating the law to prevent public accountability) is that the officer felt it necessary to stop the filming in the first place. This arrest was justified. The woman bleeding on the floor assaulted another patron, and when two officers responded to the incident, she assaulted them as well. This was a justified and necessary arrest. Whether the level of force was justified is another question, and one that is harder to assess because there is no recording of it.

Here is the solution – officers recording the incidents:

A handful of police departments already have their officers wearing video and audio recording devices. While I said a while ago that gun-mounted cameras are a good tool for police transparency and accountability, this head-mounted camera is a better option. It captures the prelude to the use of force, and doesn’t provide an incentive for the officer to draw his or her weapon sooner to get the event on film.

This is the future of American law enforcement. Departments will embrace this technology because it is a defensive measure against public outcry over the next “gotcha” video filmed with a cell phone and potential lawsuits. Law enforcement agencies will release their own footage of high-publicity events to show that their officers were complying with department guidelines on the use of force. The presence of a camera in an interaction between a cop and a citizen may also serve to keep behavior more civil since both parties know that the world is watching.

In 10 or 15 years, this technology will be ubiquitous just as police cruiser dashboard cameras are now, and law enforcement officers and the public will be better off for it.

Stop ‘n’ Frisk Databases

Via Adam Serwer, New York governor David A. Paterson is expected to sign a bill today doing away with data collection on people the police stop and question, but who have done nothing wrong.

The Transportation Security Adminstration’s “SPOT” program—recently the subject of a scathing Government Accountability Office critique—does similar data collection about innocent people.

From late May 2004 through August 2008, “behavior detection officers” referred 152,000 travelers to secondary inspection at airports. Of those, TSA agents referred 14,000 people to law enforcement, which resulted in approximately 1,100 arrests. None had links to terrorism or any threat to aviation.

The data TSA collects “when observed behaviors exceed certain thresholds”—that is, when a traveler garners TSA suspicion—includes:

  • first, middle, and last names
  • aliases and nicknames
  • home and business addresses and phone numbers
  • employer information
  • identification numbers such as Social Security Number, drivers license number or passport number
  • date and place of birth
  • languages spoken
  • nationality
  • age
  • sex
  • race
  • height and weight
  • eye color
  • hair color, style and length
  • facial hair, scars, tattoos and piercings, clothing (including colors and patterns) and eyewear
  • purpose for travel and contact information
  • photographs of any prohibited items, associated carry-on bags, and boarding documents
  • identifying information for traveling companion.

Sunlight Before Signing … Clouded

I wrote the other day that it was poor implementation of President Obama’s Sunlight Before Signing promise to post bills for public review before Congress has sent them to the president. (The ideal time to start the Sunlight Before Signing five-day clock is “presentment,” the formal step when Congress sends a bill to the president.)

Today, three bills that have not been presented to the president are posted on Whitehouse.gov as if they are ready for him to sign. (One of them, S. 1508, has been cleared for the president, but not presented. The other two haven’t seen final votes in Congress.)

(Update: Later this morning, a fourth bill was added. H.R. 5502 has been passed by the House and Senate and cleared for the White House, but not presented, according to the Thomas legislative reporting system. It may be that the bill has been presented, but the fact is not yet reported on Thomas. Similarly, H.R. 4173 did have its final vote in Congress yesterday—it was my error to say otherwise—but its presentment is not indicated on Thomas. Based on that, I presume it has not been presented, but I cannot be sure. These facts—ahem—“cloud” this critique of Whitehouse.gov practice.)

They have the notation “In Progress” next to them rather than the date on which they were posted. What that means is lost on me, and I’m a lawyer with years of experience on Capitol Hill and more than a decade in public policy. Where does this leave Joe and Jane Six-Pack?

Transparency is about making public policy accessible to ordinary people so they can oversee their government. This doesn’t help.

Overall, the news remains good. The White House has created an institutional practice of posting bills online for five days before the president signs them, as he promised he would do. Perhaps it’s because we’re coming so close to full implementation of an important transparency promise that it’s disappointing to see this odd detour into posting bills that are not ready for the president’s signature.

Major Whistleblower Provisions in Financial Regulation Bill

When Congress passes major new regulatory laws, it nowadays routinely throws in provisions authorizing lawsuits on behalf of so-called whistleblowers at regulated businesses. Lawmakers do this despite frequent complaints that such provisions encourage discontented employees to seize on borderline conduct and label it fraud or rule-breaking, enrich some persons who themselves took part in questionable practices, and interfere with companies’ own internal compliance efforts, to name a few presumably unintended consequences.

One reason these provisions are added with such regularity despite their at-best-mixed record is that they are lobbied for avidly by two groups of lawyers, the so-called qui tam bar (which collects a percentage of the sometimes enormous informant bounties provided by statute) and the plaintiff’s employment bar, for whom the laws (especially “anti-retaliation” provisions) can provide valuable leverage in negotiating on behalf of terminated employees even if no bounty is available.

While it has not been a major focus of bill opponents, the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill is loaded with major new extensions of whistleblower law into the economy’s financial sector. Michael Fox at Jottings By An Employer’s Lawyer has more, and links to a more detailed account at an understandably jubilant plaintiff’s-lawyer site. I covered the issue a few weeks ago at Overlawyered, where there is also background on qui tam and whistleblower matters more generally.

Schools on Film

AEI’s Rick Hess worries that school choice advocates are moving into the public messaging arena with “brazenly manipulative” flicks that rely on shallow “sound bites.” He cites the screening of five documentaries at an upcoming national conference in San Franscisco to argue his point.

I can’t comment on them as a whole–I haven’t seen them all–but I would like to point out that there will actually be at least eight screenings at next month’s conference. Among them will be a brief sample of a proposed six-part documentary series called School, Inc.  Taking Educational Excellence from Candle to Flame. This series, inspired by James Burke’s Connections and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, would take viewers on a world-wide quest to answer one very important question: why is excellence routinely replicated and spread on a massive scale in every field except education?

The series hasn’t been shot yet, and perhaps distributors today won’t think viewers are still interested in the kind of challenging, thought-provoking documentary series that so captivated me (and millions of others) in my teen years. But the project’s advisory board includes Jay Mathews, Paul PetersonJames Tooley, and Michael Horn, my co-producers and co-writers (Patrick Prentice and Tim Baney) have more than half-a-century of documentary filmmaking experience between them, and I’ve been studying school systems around the globe and across history for the better part of two decades. We’re confident that this series will be both substantive and entertaining, and think that American (and foreign) audiences are very interested in the subject matter. As we start to pitch to distributors in the coming months, we’ll find out if they agree.

Stay tuned….