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What four more years of Correa means for Ecuador’s press

After winning the 17 February 2013 presidential election in Ecuador with 56.9% of the vote, President Rafael Correa is heading into his third term as leader of the country, apparently committed to maintaining his antagonistic relationship with the private media. According to IFEX members Freedom House, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), International Press Institute (IPI) and Fundamedios, four more years of Correa will have a detrimental effect on democracy and the press in Ecuador.

Electoral law reforms adopted in January 2012 by way of Correa’s veto power, and enforced by the National Electoral Council (CNE in Spanish), were effective in limiting press coverage of the campaign. According to IPI, changes to Article 203 require the media to “refrain from promoting, directly or indirectly, whether through special reports or any other form” any particular candidate or ballot option.

 As CPJ wrote in a report in early February 2013, this meant that any media outlet wanting to report on the campaign was forced to devote exactly the same amount of space to each of the eight presidential candidates. “Every day in El Universo, Ecuador’s leading daily, readers can find eight small photos and news blurbs summing up the activities of the eight presidential candidates. The articles are the same size and blocked together in a layout that resembles a tic-tac-toe game, minus the ninth square,” wrote CPJ. This, they say, may look like fair reporting, but it is also superficial.

According to Freedom House, “Correa has managed one of Latin America’s largest democratic declines in recent decades”. The group said that the electoral law reforms served to stifle any democratic debate that might have taken place during the campaign. Ecuadorian journalists told CPJ that the law made it far more difficult to conduct aggressive, investigative reporting ahead of the elections. Monica Almeida, an editor at El Universo told them, “I don’t know what we’re going to do on election day”.

Local media group Fundamedios has been a vocal critic of Correa’s actions in this area. The group reported extensively on the electoral law reforms and condemned a court’s refusal to consider arguments against Correa’s veto in late January 2012, maintaining that the law contradicts sections of the 2008 Constitution because it undermines freedom of the press, a right enshrined in the constitution. Fundamedios also questioned the CNE’s publication ban of any images of the presidential candidates in the 48 hours before the polls opened. Voting is mandatory in Ecuador for all citizens between the ages of 18 and 65. The declared purpose of the ruling was to avoid influencing the electorate just before voting.

Correa, perhaps not surprisingly, was the only presidential candidate who refused to answer a survey by Fundamedios. The survey asked each candidate about trials and lawsuits against the media, the state’s role in guaranteeing human rights, the role of free expression in democratic debate, and proposed reforms to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

In the last year, Correa called into question the role of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the Organization of American States (OAS). In February 2012 the OAS Permanent Council, made up of representatives of all OAS member states, adopted proposals that could threaten the office’s role and influence, including ending the current practice of receiving external funding and being the only rapporteur to publish a stand-alone annual report.

According to an IFEX report and IPI, Ecuador has repeatedly criticised the special rapporteur for interfering in the country’s internal affairs, yet it maintains its proposals are simply an effort to ensure that all IACHR rapporteurships are being treated equally.”

Correa has also made extensive use of official TV and radio broadcasts called “cadenas” to promote and defend his government’s agenda, often while criticising the opposition press. And he has not neglected legal channels, bringing a lawsuit against El Universo in April 2011, asking the court to fine the paper an astronomical US$80 million for an article it published about his handling of the September 2010 police uprising – only to pardon the paper and its employees in February 2012. Such actions are examples of the capricious power Correa holds over his country’s media.

Even before his win, Correa said he planned to maintain his confrontational relationship with the media in his third term. El Universo has reported that after his re-election Correa named the country’s private media the “big loser” of the election. It seems that with his latest victory, Rafael Correa has no plans to change his approach. As Freedom House put it, Ecuador’s citizens deserve greater transparency and respect for freedom of expression, but “Unfortunately, if the last six years are any indicator, they will not get them from Rafael Correa.”

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