Government of Ecuador asks paper to “filter” reader comments

Newspaper La Hora said last Friday the government of Ecuador is trying to censor its readers after the National Secretary of Communication, Patricio Barriga, sent a letter to the newspaper’s editor asking for an “effective filter” of reader comments.

“On multiple occasions we have found offensive publications which shield themselves behind ‘citizen’ opinions and have been given space in the written and digital editions of your paper.  These articles and comments threaten people’s honor and good name, including the Constitutional President of the Republic,” says part of the letter sent by the government and published by La Hora.

The letter, directed to Juana López, adjunct director of the newspaper, specifically cited the publication of a letter from a reader titled “Punishment at the ballot box,” which appeared in the Letters to the Editor section of the paper on Sunday, Jan. 20, said the site of the Secretariat of Communication of Ecuador.  In it, the writer says: “I salute you for your courage in confronting this civil dictator we have for a president.  I hope you make it clear to the Ecuadorian people through the media that it is necessary to punish this arrogant, shameless man at the ballot box.”

The letter added that the publishing of this type of commentary could be seen as a violation of some articles of the American Convention on Human Rights “because it encourages hatred.”

To avoid this, the government demanded that the newspaper “implement effective mechanisms” based on ulterior responsibility, a legal concept in Ecuador’s Communication Law that makes publishers responsible for any content that threatens the honor or good name of a person.  It was one of the points of the law most strongly defended by President Rafael Correa.

The Ecuadorian NGO Fundamedios called the government’s request a “threat” that represented a “serious act of censorship,” especially as the country enters its electoral campaign season, a time in which the organization asserted that “the free exchange of ideas must be permitted.”

Additionally, the NGO rejected the use of the ulterior responsibility clause because, according to both the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, ulterior responsibility “cannot be used to punish or restrict criticisms or comments against public officials and the exercise of their functions, even when they offend, disturb or impact, given that they are necessary for debate in a democratic State.”

In October 2012, La Hora de Ecuador indefinitely suspended reader comments on its website to avoid “publishing offensive comments,” according to Fundamedios.  In November of last year it also published an apology to the government on the order of a judge.

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.

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