Ecuador’s government must not start regulating private media and social networks, journalists and press watchdogs warned, after its National Assembly voted to constitutionally define communications as a public service.
President Rafael Correa’s party, Alianza Pais, enjoys a two-thirds majority in the assembly. It voted on Thursday to lift presidential term limits, prompting violent street protests and a boycott by some members of the opposition.
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Correa is seen by critics as being increasingly adversarial against some of Ecuador’s journalists who allege harassment through defamation lawsuits and frequent verbal attacks thick with rhetoric.
Reporters are caught in a polarised media landscape between the opposition and the government, where some say they are forced to pick sides.
“The problem is that freedom of expression is more than just a public service, it is a human right, it is a duty that needs to be protected and not regulated,” Eric Samson, head of the journalism department at Universidad de San Francisco de Quito, told Al Jazeera.
“Right now there is a fight between the private media and the government, which treats it like they are working for the opposition, so there is no dialogue,” Samson said.
Correa – who often accuses sections of the press of unfair criticism – blames corporations and banks owning private media companies as the real culprits behind what he calls biased reporting.
Al Jazeera contacted the office of the secretary of communications for comment, but he was not available by publication time.
Ecuador’s media was already under the ambit of public service under the country’s 2013 Communications Law, but giving it a constitutional validity with Thursday’s vote is seen by some journalists as a sign of more self-censorship and further scrutiny by regulatory bodies in an effort to muzzle criticism.
Journalists say the threat of lawsuits and fines on cash-strapped media houses has already made critical reporting difficult, even before the constitutional amendment was voted on.
The punitive measures in the law are vaguely termed and their application often depends on the discretion of the authorities.
“The government can sue you and you know you will lose and they will win. It’s the percentage of the money the newspaper makes every month. If you make another mistake, the fine keeps increasing until you don’t have money any more to run the newspaper and you have to shut down,” Carla Sandoval, a journalist, told Al Jazeera.
Political satirists and cartoonists who have taken to social media to criticise the government have faced a backlash.
Crudo Ecuador, among the most popular ones with thousands of Facebook and Twitter followers, shut down after its anonymous administrator allegedly received threats against him and his family from unknown sources.
There were also attempts to shut down the country’s media watchdog, Fundamedios, for allegedly spreading partisan political messages, but the case was later dropped after widespread criticism.
Fundamedios regularly documents attacks on press freedom and freedom of expression by the government. It recorded 1,374 such cases and 144 instances of sanctions against media outlets and journalists under the communication law.
The watchdog is cautious about the possible consequences of the new amendments.
“We are calling on Ecuadorian citizens and the international community to be vigilant about any attempt by the government to nationalise and take control of the media, which is already facing the consequences of an excessive concentration of power state,” Cesar Ricuarte, executive director of Fundamedios, told Al Jazeera.
“We also want them to be alert about any control over the content of the Internet platform and other communication systems not currently controlled by the state,” he added.
The left-leaning economist turned politician Correa – who is in his third term and immensely popular for his social justice reforms and welfare spending – is facing a rough ride in Ecuador.
The slump in global oil prices is stressing the finances of the small OPEC member with a dollarised economy.
Activists and journalists say the timing of the amendments is crucial, but its effect is yet to be felt.
“It is clearly a setback. It starts with an erroneous concept that the freedom of expression is not a right but a public service that can be regulated by the state, which is confusing,” said Carlos Lauria from the Committee to Protect Journalists. “This is not water or electricity that can be regulated by the state. This is a right – you cannot regulate a right.”