As a citizen of both Ecuador and the United States, it has been very disheartening to see most major US newspapers take part in a joint attack on the Ecuadorean government for allegedly curtailing press freedoms. This attack should alert everyone in the US to the fact that US media is not independent, much less accurate.
At the outset, let me clarify that this is not meant to be an apology in favor of the Ecuadorian government or President Correa. But the following plain facts show that the recent editorials written by major US newspapers are seriously inaccurate, perhaps ill-intended.
Ecuador is not a dictatorship (much less a “banana republic”—thank you, Washington Post): In fact, its president won elections by wide margins twice in 2007 and 2009 (after a Constitutional Assembly), and the president enjoys popularity levels well over 60%. Further, when the Executive government wants to push for major changes, such as constitutional amendments, the government recurs to mandatory popular referendums—arguably the most democratic form of legislation possible. When was the last time the U.S. government consulted its people directly on key issues, such as bank reform, social security affiliation, and justice system overhauls? Ecuador’s Executive branch did, less than a year ago.
The lawsuit against El Universo newspaper is not an assault on the private press: The President’s lawsuit against El Universo did not result from an article that merely criticized the President or called him a dictator. The article clearly accuses the President of committing “crimes against humanity” and of “giving [soldiers] firing orders against a hospital full of civilians.” This, according to Ecuadorian law, and like in many other countries, could amount to libel and defamation if not accompanied by proper evidence. When taken to court, El Universo failed to provide such evidence, and instead the court found that El Universo had previously increased the libelous author’s salary. In direct violation to the Ecuadorean Constitution, which orders media to rectify inaccurate reporting, El Universo refused to do so, and has only offered apologies with certain “conditions,” none of which they are entitled to demand.
Ecuador does not jail journalists for their political opinions: Although damages in the El Universo case was 10 million dollars for each of the three newspaper executives and for the libelous journalist, and 3 years in prison for each, this in no way means that the Ecuadorian government jails dissenting journalists. In fact, there isn’t a single jailed journalist in Ecuador. Jail sentences are imposed for libel and defamation, not for dissent. And again, the defendants could have avoided liability simply by rectifying the false story. But all of them refused, and one of them is currently in Miami after fleeing Ecuador’s justice system.
Ecuador has a very high level of press freedom: The press in Ecuador is so free, that it is able to day after day publish news and opinion articles that are extremely critical of the government, some of which probably even maliciously distorted. But they are published nevertheless. And even though some articles are so extremely biased–many of them accuse the government of corruption, or even repeatedly call the president a dictator–no journalists have been ever put in jail as a result. Again, the case against El Universo is not a press freedom case, it is a libel and defamation case. Also, unlike what one of the recent US newspaper editorials would have its readers believe, the case against El Universo is not about defamation of a public official—it is about defamation. Period. The fact that the plaintiff is the President, legally, has not bearing on the merits of the lawsuit.
Under Ecuadorean law, defamation is a criminal, jailable offense. Some claim that this is outrageous because defamation is not a criminal offense in the US. So what? It is true that libel and defamation are only civil offenses in the US, but this is irrelevant. In Ecuador, the death penalty is forbidden. Should the US abolish the death penalty only because Ecuador prohibits it? They are simply two countries with different legal systems. Also, remember that El Universo could have avoided liability in Ecuador simply by correcting the false article and apologizing to its readers. But they refused.
The Ecuadorian government is not monopolizing the media: The Ecuadorian government controls directly only one official small newspaper/gazette that the Executive uses to divulge its version of several stories and to promote new initiatives. Besides that, the State (via the Legislature, not the Executive) has created one public television station and one public radio station that air the President’s weekly address to the nation, but neither of which are in the Executive branch’s “control.” In fact, both of these public stations have excellent programming and should be a model for the US to follow. Instead of constantly bombarding viewers for donations from viewers and even airing private ads like many PBS and NPR stations, Ecuadorian public media’s funding is fully guaranteed. Some critics falsely claim that the government controls three other television channels besides the ones I mentioned, but in fact these are nothing more than stations that were impounded from bankers who have fled the country’s justice system. These impounded stations have always been available for sale, but nobody has offered to purchase them so far. In terms of the development of quality, public media, Ecuador’s government should be commended, not attacked. Again, public media’s programming in Ecuador is excellent, and is a healthy counterweight to the private media—a lesson the US media sector should learn.
The Executive is not seeking to silence the private press: The Executive recently approved a regulation that would prohibit media from broadcasting material that favors particular political candidates a few weeks ahead of elections. Some have presented this as an attempt to silence the press, but in reality, it is a common-sense regulation that exists in several other countries and is meant to promote fairness during elections. As some honest journalists have pointed out, this regulation in no way poses any threats for journalists as long as they present candidates neutrally during the specified time period.
The Executive is prohibited from using public resources in election campaigns: Unlike what some government opponents have falsely claimed, using public resources for campaigns is prohibited in Ecuador. In fact, it is prohibited not just by any law, but by the Constitution itself. The claim that the Executive has tried to modify regulations to allow itself to use public resources for campaigning is, in all honesty, one of the many distortions that the so-called private free press has fabricated.
Ecuador’s government is not taking revenge on the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights: Some US newspapers have tried to present Ecuador’s government as a repressive force that is trying to take revenge on the Commission for defending free speech. In reality, what Ecuador’s government has uncovered is the fact that the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression receives special funding from the US, Canada, and the EU that none of the other Special Rapporteurs receive. Not only is this unfair, but it is outrageous because neither of these three countries/regions even recognize the Interamerican system or have even signed the Interamerican Convention. Worse, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression is led by someone from the US. The very fact that the Commission is in Washington makes little sense, is unfair, and should be changed, as Ecuador’s government advocates.
But perhaps more important than the points outlined above, Ecuador’s government, though not perfect, is making significant social accomplishments that the US media should take more seriously and has rarely, if ever, reported. According to the ECLAC (the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean), a neutral UN agency, Ecuador has significantly reduced poverty under the current government, has cut its public debt to half of the regional average, has expanded free health care and education to the point of making both of them universal, has reduced unemployment and increased economic growth to historic levels, and has reduced income inequality significantly.
Again, as a citizen of both Ecuador and the US, and as someone who is currently living in the US, a country in a severe recession and the most unequal industrialized society on Earth, the fact that the US media fails to credit the Ecuadorean government’s accomplishments is extremely disheartening. But in addition to being disheartening, it is also extremely illustrative. El Universo has allegedly hired a public relations firm to lobby US newspapers, which explains a great deal of why US newspaper attacks on Ecuador’s government have come so suddenly and have been so uniform in their arguments across the board. This, therefore, should be a reminder to those of us who live in the US, that US private media is far from independent and fair–a major problem for any democratic society, particularly one as unequal as the United States–and any patriotic US citizens who want a better future for this country should rightfully feel concerned.
Written by Ecuadorian citizen Ricardo Ampudia