Ecuador's communications law has sanctioned 675 media outlets and journalists in four years

When Ecuador approved the Organic Law of Communication (LOC for its acronym in Spanish) in 2013, different organizations inside and outside the country expressed concern about the negative effects that the standard could have on freedom of expression.

Four years later, the figures seem to show that the concern was not misplaced. Since June 25, 2013 when the law came into effect, the Superintendency of Information and Communication (Supercom) – the regulatory entity created by the LOC – has processed 1,081 cases against media outlets and journalists, of which 675 have ended in sanctions, according to information from Supercom.

According to Ecuadorian NGO Fundamedios, which keeps its records independently, of the 859 proceedings before Supercom up to May 15, 2017, 401 were initiated by the office itself and public officials, while 458 were initiated by citizen denunciations.

Of the 527 sanctions of media outlets and journalists registered by Fundamedios, 324 have been fines, 137 have been written reprimands and 54 have been cases in which the entity or person was forced to offer a public apology.

In terms of the fines, Supercom has raised US $531,288, according to the NGO. However, Fundamedios clarified "that it was not possible to obtain information on the exact amount" of the fines.

For organizations critical of the LOC, the problem with these sanctions is that they are made for concepts that violate rights included in freedom of the press, such as the right to an editorial line. For example, one of the most controversial sanctions occurred in 2015 when the newspaper La Hora was fined for not publishing the accounts of the then-mayor of Loja, Bolivar Castillo.

Some replies that media outlets have been forced to make have also generated controversy. The newspaper El Comercio, for example, had to rectify an article in 2015 that according to Fundamedios had documents that backed it up. For the organization, the newspaper "was forced to lie on the front page.”

The exorbitant fines have led many media outlets to choose self-censorship in order to avoid them.

The newspaper El Universo has perhaps been one of the most fined outlets. In 2015, for example, it was fined US $350,000 for not publishing a reply in the way it had been diagrammed and written by the Ministry of Communication. The newspaper had already published a reply to the same story upon request from the Minister of Finance, but Secom was not satisfied.

Supercom's clashes with caricaturist Xavier Bonilla 'Bonil' of El Universo are also well-known. He was the first communicator to be sanctioned with the LOC when he was forced to rectify a cartoon, but he has also had to offer apologies and has received written reprimands over the years.

In the framework of this anniversary, on June 22 Fundamedios organized the public forum 'Resisting Censorship: 4 years of the Gag Law' with the purpose of "generating a proposal to improve this legal body."

"Four years is a sufficiently long time, perhaps too long, to have experienced the defects of this norm and it’s a precise moment to make an evaluation of the few pros and the many cons of this norm," said Iñigo Salvador, Dean of the Faculty of Jurisprudence of the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador, where this forum took place.

According to Mariana Neira, president of Fundamedios, the LOC was the result of the confrontation that former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa initiated at the beginning of his first administration in 2008. In her presentation, Neira made a historical recounting of the different attacks to the press before this law was put into force and emphasized that these attacks became stronger "when touching upon a sensitive point: corruption."

For Neira, the greatest resistance of the journalists and media outlets is seen through their investigations. For this reason, she said that in order to achieve a country free of corruption a free press is needed.

"For the press to be free, that which aims to be an ideological control of content must disappear from the LOC, everything that impedes free thinking, freedom of expression," Neira said.

During the first panel of the event, assembly members presented amendments to some articles of the law "with the aim of guaranteeing freedom of expression and of the press," according to a statement from Fundamedios.

Some of the proposals are to replace the Supercom and the Council for Regulation and Development of Information and Communication (Cordicom) "with a Communication Council that promotes freedoms, that is made up of representatives from various spaces." There were also a proposal to change the concept of news of public interest and to eliminate self-censorship.

During a second panel, journalists like Janeth Hinostroza, Luis Miguel Baldeón and Juan Manuel Yépez discussed how the LOC has affected their journalistic work and the media outlets where they work. For Yépez, Supercom presents contradictions because it is an entity that accuses and judges at the same time.

For its part, Supercom celebrated the four years of this law that "recognizes and promotes citizens' rights to information and communication." In a June 26 release, the entity highlighted the actions carried out under this law that not only include the processes, but also the random monitoring of media content with the objective of protecting children or encouraging the dissemination of intercultural content, among others, as well as some audits of media outlets.

"All these actions have permitted a recognition of the human right to communication, which is one of the most profound changes that has been experienced in the country, as well as an improvement in the quality of content," said Supercom. "But one of the most important aspects is that in four years no media outlet has been closed or shut down, which means freedoms of expression and of information have been guaranteed within the framework of respect for citizens' rights."

Although no media outlet has been closed by decision of the Supercom and LOC, in 2016 the UN special rapporteurs and the IACHR expressed their concern about the "arbitrary application" of this law.

"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,” the relators said, according to the release.

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.