BOGOTA -- Ecuador passed a sweeping media bill Friday that will shutdown many private broadcasters and regulate everything from reader comments on websites to the percentage of foreign music that can be played on the radio.
The Communications Law is the latest salvo in President Rafael Correa’s war on what he calls the “corrupt press.” But free speech advocates worry that the law will be used to cow the media and silence critical voices.
“The law not only undermines journalists’ ability to report critically but threatens the right of citizens to be informed about sensitive issues,” Carlos Lauría, with the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement. “This legislation puts into law a key goal of the Correa presidency: muzzling all critics of his administration."
Among the major changes, the law will limit private broadcasters to 33 percent of the spectrum. Public media will control 33 percent, and “community” media — run by nonprofit groups and community organizations — will control 34 percent.
Currently, private media hold about 60 percent of the broadcast spectrum, said Mauricio Alarcon, the project manager for Fundamedios, a free-speech group.
“What this redistribution implies is that more than half [of the private media] are going to be left without frequencies to transmit on,” he said.
Mauro Andino, the bill’s author and a member of Correa’s PAIS party, said the rules provide ample protection to journalists but also give citizens tools to push back against abusive media.
“Let there be no doubt, that everyone has rights,” he told the state-run Telegrafo newspaper, “not just a privileged group, like some members of the opposition wanted — or the mercantilist press that sells information.”
Correa has to ratify the law, but has already expressed his intention to do so.
Among other provisions, the law will require television stations to run one hour a day of government programming and interrupt broadcasts to carry presidential announcements, known as cadenas.
But much of the language in the bill is broad and vague, laying out sanctions and fines for media that “omit or twist” facts, engage in “media lynching” or fail to provide “balanced” reports.
The bill also makes online media responsible for reader comments, unless the sites register users, inform them that they can be held liable for what they write and implement a monitoring system.
The arbiter of the new rules will be the Superintendent of Information and Communication, who will be selected from a list of candidates provided by the president.
Raul Izurieta, the president of the Amazonas radio company, which has three stations, says he fears the new law will be used to fine and punish the president’s critics. He also worries the government will use frequency redistribution as a tool to strip radio licenses and hand them to political allies.
“We’re living in sad times,” he said. “The president will have the power to take away what people have spent, 20, 30 or 40 years working on.”
Ecuador already has a reputation for being tough on the press. Correa has successfully sued a handful of journalists and newspaper owners for criminal defamation. In 2011, he pushed for, and won, a referendum that makes it illegal for media owners to have other business interests.
The president argues that the media has been in the hands of a powerful few who use their outlets to play politics and try to undermine his administration.
But even as the government has gone after the local press, it’s tried to burnish its international image as a defender of free speech.
Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño is traveling to London this weekend to meet with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been in Ecuador’s embassy for almost a year fighting extradition to Sweden on allegations of rape.
Ecuador has offered Assange political asylum, but this bill makes Assange’s line of work — releasing classified and secret communications — a punishable offense. The law says everyone has the “inviolable right to keep their personal communications secret.”
But the law also has some clear winners: local artists. Music stations will have to earmark 50 percent of their airtime for Ecuadoran artists; 100 percent of all commercials must be made in Ecuador; and local television stations will be required to air at least two nationally made movies per year.
Izurieta said he suspected the government would use the local-content stipulations to push state propaganda and increase its media presence.
Alternatively, “I guess we’ll have to play the same song over and over again,” he said.