A government agency in Ecuador that regulates media content, dictates headlines and corrections that news organizations are forced to publish and doles out fines to those who dare to disobey has just celebrated its second anniversary and announced changes in the country’s controversial communications law.
Despite an overwhelming condemnation from national and international organizations dedicated to advocate for freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the Ecuadorian government is happy with the work of this unprecedented agency called Superintendency of Information and Communication, also known by the acronym Supercom.
“I believe that now more than ever there exists a true freedom of expression in this country,” said Carlos Ochoa, the head of Supercom.
In the last two years, Ochoa and his team examined more than 500 cases against media outlets, punished 313 companies and applied fines of about USD $274,000.
Supercom announced on June 23 that it was reviewing a draft of proposed reforms that would be finalized at the end of the year.
Proposed reforms include the opportunity for mediation between parties involved in a dispute so they can avoid penalties by reaching an agreement; establishment of adjustable sanctions ranging on a scale from 1 to 10 so that the maximum penalty might not be applied depending on circumstances; and the ability for sanctioned media to air educational programming in place of a fine.
Yet a number of publications faced sanctions from the agency and were forced to publish replies and corrections in recent weeks.
In its June 23 edition, newspaper La Hora published a reply, with headline and text layout provided, from the National Communications Secretariat (Secom by its acronym in Spanish), according to Fundamedios. The newspaper said in an editorial that it was being done in protest and that they considered it to be humiliating to the outlet, editors, and journalists.
La Hora had published the original story concerning a proposed tax and the middle class on May 27, but did not receive a request for reply until about a month later. The Director General of the Internal Revenue Service asked for a reply “because of alleged inconsistencies and misrepresentations of some of the information contained in the article,” according to Fundamedios. Accompanying the request was a letter and CD from Secom requesting publication of provided headline, text and layout.
However, La Hora was not the first publication to catch the attention of Secom in the past few weeks.
On June 22, newspaper El Comercio published a correction, headline and layout included, ordered by Secom. The correction concerned a June 16 article about a speech given by President Rafael Correa, according to Fundamedios.
In May and June, newspaper Expreso twice found itself in trouble with Supercom over an article it had written about another government agency.
The complaints concerned an April 29 article that said the chairman of the board of the Ecuadoran Social Security Institute (IESS by its acronym in Spanish) was having trouble allaying the protests of pensioners.
After the chairman asked for a correction, the newspaper published it on May 1. However, the chairman later complained that the publication had violated Article 23 of the Law of Communication (LOC) because the correction did not adhere to the terms of the law, according to Supercom.
Expreso was ordered by Supercom to issue a public apology and to pay a fine equivalent to 10 percent of its average turnover of the last three months. On June 21, it published a correction, including headline and layout, from the chairman of the IESS.
About a week earlier, El Universo was handed a fine equal to 10 percent of its average monthly revenue over the previous quarter (about USD $350,000) for alleged noncompliance with the LOC by not publishing a reply to one of its stories about IESS. Two days earlier, the newspaper had published an editorial saying that it was exercising its right to defiance.
Yet, government media regulatory agencies are not just targeting news outlets. On June 24, Secom issued a notice to Fundamedios, which monitors threats to journalists and freedom of expression, in which it said that the organization had moved into political issues and deviated from its stated objectives.
“The notice mentions the grounds for dissolution established by Executive Decree 16 and threatens Fundamedios stating it has a ‘clear intention to play a key role as a political actor that seeks to generate mistrust among the public about matters that are outside its competence,’” Fundamedios reported.
César Ricaurte, executive director of Fundamedios, said the organization is not partisan, but does work in the public interest.
"We will continue issuing alerts whether Secom likes them or not, even if they close us. We will continue to work from our houses. If they come with police to close our offices we will be here, you will find us here,” Ricaurte said.
When the LOC passed in 2013, it created Supercom to regulate the country’s media.
Through an official letter sent to the State of Ecuador in 2013, the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the IACHR pointed out at least 10 sections in which the LOC could restrict the right to freedom of expression.
International press organizations have also joined in calling attention to the LOC and Supercom.
On June 16, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) called on the international community, specifically the General Assembly of the Organization of American States, to notice “the flagrant abuse of Rafael Correa’s government against the right of the public to be informed, against the free work of journalists and against private and independent media in his country.”
Supercom just released a statement in which it said that it oversaw 506 cases and issued 313 resolutions during its first two years. Defendants received monetary fines in 185 of 303 cases brought to resolution.
Fundamedios conducted its own study of 269 cases taken before Supercom and its six administrative offices between October 2014 and April 2015. The organization found that of the 143 cases with a resolution, “49 were initiated by Supercom and all ended with a sanction.” In cases where sanctions were given, only one was handed to a public media outlet, while the other 142 were imposed on private media, according to the organization. In addition to monetary sanctions, resolutions have ended in written reprimands, public apologies, and corrections.
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.