Ecuadoran authority and Special Rapporteurs clash over the country's controversial Communications Law

Ecuador’s Communication Law (LOC for its acronym in Spanish) was the subject of a recent conflict between the country’s government and special rapporteurs for freedom of expression of the United Nations (UN), David Kaye, and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), Edison Lanza.

The confrontation began when, on Nov. 3, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression of the UN and the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the IACHR warned “about the serious effects of” the LOC and the way it is applied. They also urged the country’s authorities to “bring it in line with international standards on the issue,” a press release from the officials said.

Although the LOC, which was approved in 2013, has received criticism not only from these entities, but also national and international human rights defense organizations, it was the first time that the two rapporteurs jointly expressed their concerns with the implementation of the law.

According to the rapporteurs, the way this law is applied, "it has been used as an instrument to unduly interfere in the content of media outlets and punish them, especially when their coverage is unfavorable or questions the government's actions and decisions."

They also called attention to certain obligations established by law that “are not precisely defined by law” and to the “severe punishments” imposed by it, which inhibit freedom of expression and of opinion in the country.

They criticized the work of the Superintendency of Information and Communication (Supercom) – an entity created by the LOC to monitor media and impose sanctions it deems necessary – and said it was not sufficiently independent from the executive branch, which has “a paralyzing and inhibitory effect on the work of journalists and the media in Ecuador.”

"Any restriction on freedom of expression must be explicitly established by law, and even when it has legitimate goals—ensuring respect for the rights or reputation of others and to protect national security, public order, or public health or morals—it must be proportional and necessary in a democratic society," the rapporteurs were quoted as saying, by the release.

The rapporteurs were particularly concerned about those obligations of the law to protect the honor and reputations of public officials, the release said, as well as the right to reply and correction. On this topic, they highlighted the sanction imposed on newspapers such as El Universo and La Horawhich have suffered the forced publication of information and economic sanctions that are disproportionate."

It was precisely the part related to Supercom that caused the leader of that entity, Superintendent Carlos Ochoa, to offer a press conference and press release on Nov. 8 in which he rejected what was expressed. He also invited them to “assume the role for which they were designated, which is to defend freedom of expression as a collective right and not as a mere apparatus in defense of the economic structure and political power that permits the formation of media monopolies and oligopolies in the region and the world, and to which today the rapporteurs in question definitely represent.”

For the Superintendent, what the rapporteurs say is a sign of their ignorance of Ecuador and the LOC, and he said that the work of Supercom complies with international standards as well as the country’s Constitution.

“It is clear that the rapporteurs replicate the discourse of some media outlets that presume to be above the law and accept criteria of groups like Fundamedios, Aedep and the IAPA, linked to them, not only economically, but also to their own Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of which they have received financing, which could be legal, but in no way ethical,” Ochoa said.

Also, to deny the issue of “disproportionate” economic sanctions proposed on media outlets, he used the figures of the institution. “In its three year of operation, little more than 600,000 dollars have been collected, while the assets declared by the media last year to the Superintendency of Companies amount to 513 million dollars, which detracts from this assertion. In addition, if there were no violations of the law, there would be no need to impose sanctions.”

For its second anniversary in 2015, Supercom announced it had leveled fines totaling US $274,000. This means that in this last year, it imposed fines for more than US $320,000.

And although Ochoa downplayed the multiple cases against El Universo and La Hora, and said they were not persecutions, some of these have generated outrage. According to Ochoa, the persecution does not exist because the majority of the process against each of these newspapers were not initiated ex oficio, meaning, by Supercom, but by other civil organizations or citizens. Ochoa said that of the 17 processes against El Universo, only was was ex oficio, while six of the 25 cases against La Hora were ex oficio.

Ochoa concluded his presentation by ensuring that if the rapporteurs had requested this information, the entity would have provided it. However, the rapporteurs also completed their release by saying that they sent a letter to Ecuador requesting information on these cases and concerns. They also said they are waiting for this response “to open a dialogue” with authorities in that country.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.