Last year the Ecuadorian government seized two TV channels broadcasting on public airwaves and one cable channel along with hundreds of other businesses supposedly owned by the Isaías family, an unpopular Ecuadorian business group that the government bailed out in the late nineties. In seizing those assets, the current government claimed to be cashing in on a long overdue debt owed to it by the Isaías family. Leaving the violations of due process aside, this was a significant attack on freedom of the press in Ecuador given that the two public access channels garnered almost half the country’s TV audience. Back then the government said it was going to sell off the seized channels but it has not done so yet.
The last elections in my country, held on April 26, showed how government ends up manipulating state media: 79% of the political ads aired on these channels went for the official candidates despite the fact that the new electoral rules require every candidate to have equal air time.
Since those elections, Carlos Vera, the most popular morning news anchor in the country, quit his channel Ecuavisa because he claims to have been subject to the self-censorship imposed by Ecuavisa’s owner. According to Vera, the owner wanted to dictate whom he should interview on his show and chose not to air one of his interviews which, coincidentally, was with the President’s main political opponent. Vera issued a public statement explaining that he would not censor his show nor would he let anybody else do so. Since then, Ecuavisa’s independence has been severely questioned.
This leaves us with one important public airwaves channel that is still independent: Teleamazonas.
For the past couple of weeks there have been growing rumors that the government might shut down Teleamazonas applying the laws of Conartel, the regulator of TV and radio stations. According to Ecuadorian regulations, which have their origins in the military dictatorship of General Rodríguez Lara of the early 1970s, a TV channel or radio station can be sanctioned symbolically for $20 the first time it commits a violation; suspended for up to 90 days the second time; and lose its concession to operate for good the third time. Conartel has already imposed two sanctions on Teleamazonas.
In the first case Teleamazonas was sanctioned for showing bull fighting images, which Conartel has considered to be “conducive to violence” and thus, in violation of its regulations. This is a questionable rule, especially in a country in which bull-fighting takes center stage every December in Quito. In the case of the second sanction Conartel is applying a clause that forbids the live reporting of unconfirmed events. Such a law would make illegal most of the news reported in CNN or other news networks that report in real time. In this particular case, Teleamazonas aired images of what appeared to be a clandestine vote-counting center.
For now, we are waiting to hear from Conartel about the third sanction and what it is going to do about the second sanction, which would, if enforced, mean the suspension of Teleamazonas for up to 90 days. I wonder what freedom of expression Ecuadorians would be left with if the government decided to apply Conartel’s rules consistently to every TV and radio station.
Meanwhile the former Minister of the Interior, Gustavo Larrea, called attention to “journalists whose salary comes from foreign powers” including the CIA, though he did not specify what individuals he was referring to.
When asked about details he merely replied that it was the duty of a legislative commission to find out. I guess he is suggesting that individuals like myself, who write for an Ecuadorian newspaper but are not employed by an Ecuadorian company, should be investigated…
What is happening in Ecuador, and what has been happening in Venezuela over the last few years – the shutdown of RCTV, and the ongoing persecution of Globovisión – shows that in countries with a weak rule of law and public ownership of the airwaves, regulations can easily serve those in power who want to silence independent voices. Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase warned Americans about this potential abuse of power in 1959 in his classic “The Federal Communications Commission.” Back then he wondered, “In other fields it is almost always agreed that the use of property rights and of the price system serves the public good, why not in the case of radios [and TV]?”