Tag: ecuador

Ecuador’s Continuing Attack on the Free Press

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]?”

Obama Congratulates Correa

The White House announced today that President Obama called Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to congratulate him on his recent re-election and “to commend the people of Ecuador for their commitment to democracy.”

I’ve lauded Obama before for avoiding picking fights with Latin American populist leaders such as Correa. But I think that trying to befriend them sends the wrong signal to defenders of democratic institutions throughout the region. After all, a year ago Correa confessed that he wasn’t a democrat if that represented allowing the opposition to participate in the debate for a new constitution. More recently, he stated (in Spanish) that he preferred “a thousand times” to be a friend of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez than be an ally of the United States.

Obama should pick his friends in Latin America more carefully.

Freedom of Speech Under Attack in Ecuador

Freedom of speech is coming under attack again in President Rafael Correa’s Ecuador. Last year Correa sent armed soldiers before dawn to some 200 private businesses, including three television stations, on the pretext that the owner (an unpopular businessman and critic of the government) had not paid money owed to the government.

It was never clear why the government had to place its own people in charge of running those businesses rather than go through the usual auditing or bankruptcy procedures. The result was to reduce criticism of the government at those TV stations and send a message to the rest of the media. At the time, Gabriela Calderón, Cato’s Ecuador-based editor of our Spanish language web site, www.elcato.org, hosted a weekly talk show program on CN3 TV station with two other market-liberal commentators. The station was one of the ones taken over, after which, Gabriela and her colleagues were told that from then on, their show had to “balanced” and include pro-government spokespersons. Gabriela and her colleagues quit in protest and the show went off the air.

Now Correa is enforcing a law that explicitly violates freedom of speech. Ecuador has been an officially dollarized country since 2000, before Correa came to power. Years of high oil prices have financed an explosion in government spending. With oil prices down, Correa’s populist project is quickly running out of money and people are speculating that he will de-dollarize Ecuador, allowing him to run the printing presses. However, it is illegal in Ecuador to suggest that the country will de-dollarize, as that would violate the law against spreading rumors of devaluation. The first victim has been Rómulo López Sabando, an attorney and long-time columnist for the Diario Expreso. On March 24 he wrote a column indicating that the government is planning to dedollarize. For committing that crime, the government ordered his arrest. He has been in hiding since.

It’s a very good bet that the government will de-dollarize this year, yet the Ecuadorian press has been silent on the matter. As the law victimizes the press and, more generally, Ecuadorian democracy, López remains in hiding and the arrest warrant still holds. Will Obama and other hemispheric leaders meeting at the summit of the Americas later this week denounce these abuses?