Ecuador’s congress has passed a restrictive new media law, creating official media overseers, imposing sanctions for smearing “people’s good name” and limiting private media to one third of radio and TV licenses.
The country’s privately owned media, which is largely in opposition hands, joined press freedom groups in calling the bill an authoritarian measure to control dissent.
Politician Mauro Andino, who sponsired the bill, said the proposal would protect freedom of speech, but “with a focus on everybody’s rights, not just for a group of the privileged”.
A media watchdog will be able to impose fines and force media outlets to issue public apologies if it concludes that they defamed people, or that the information published could prompt a “violent” reaction from an audience.
Critics have called the law, which was passed by a 108-26 margin, a blow to free speech but the government has hailed it as a step towards a more balanced media.
The law represents a victory for socialist President Rafael Correa’s in his six-year battle with the country’s media, during which he sued several outlets for libel, and insulted reporters with epithets such as “wild beasts” and “rabid dogs”.
Opposition politicians, who wore gags during the debate, say the law will allow the government to control media through loosely defined regulations that require information to be accurate and balanced.
Government officials said it will make communications more democratic.
“This law is a milestone that separates the before and after in the history of communication and access to information by all Ecuadoreans,” Political Management Minister Betty Tola said.
Several rights groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International, have expressed concern that the Correa government might be trampling on freedom of expression.
“One of this law’s main flaws is the creation of a new mechanism for regulating the traditional media and their websites. Another is its attempt to influence how the profession of journalism is defined and practised,” Reporters Without Borders said on Friday.
The law calls for a redistribution of broadcast frequencies and reserves 33 percent of frequencies for state media, 33 percent for privately owned broadcasters and 34 percent for indigenous groups.
But it will not take away existing concessions to radio and TV networks.
“Such an allocation constitutes a powerful lever for media pluralism,” said Reporters Without Borders.
The law enshrines some universal media rights, including the right to withhold the name of a source, and prohibits public officials from censoring media outlets.
Politicians had been discussing the media law on-and-off for four years.
But the ruling Alianza Pais party won almost three-fourths of seats in Congress in February, allowing it to pass laws without having to negotiate with the opposition.
Correa’s government has launched a number of TV and radio networks, as well as a news agency, to counteract privately owned media.
He also filed charges against journalists and newspaper owners for libelling him, although he pardoned the defendants after they were sentenced to jail or to pay hefty damages.
After taking office in 2007, Correa, 50, ushered in a period of political stability.
His government has not faced the kind of widespread social protests that forced three presidents to step down in the decade before he took office.
High state spending on infrastructure and social projects propelled the US-trained economist to his sweeping re-election, but he has been criticised for his strict governing style.
The president has quarrelled with foreign oil investors, local banks, telecommunications companies, the US government and the Catholic Church.