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Controversial Communications Law
Luis Ángel Saavedra*
7/15/2013
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Law is applauded for supporting community media and national production but is challenged for sections that would restrict freedom of expression.

It only took 35 minutes to pass the Communications Act that had been stalled in the National Assembly for more than four years because of a lack of consensus on several controversial articles. In light of the controversy, at the June 14 session, debate was not allowed nor were the 109 articles of the law read, despite the inclusion of articles that were not discussed in the previous Assembly.

During the vote only the titles of the six general bodies of the law were read before proceeding to vote, obtaining 108 votes for four of the sections (Preliminary Provisions and Definitions, Principles and Rights, Social Communication Systems, Contents Regulations) and 110 votes for the remaining two (Social Media, Radio Spectrum).

For community media, approval of the Communications Law means not only its recognition as a highly relevant social actor, but also the strengthening of its presence in the community and the possibility to fund it.

Community media, which as defined in Article 85 are those “whose property, administration and management belong to groups or non-profit social organizations, communes, communities, peoples and nationalities,” are assigned 34 percent of frequencies in Article 106, effectively meeting one of the constitutional mandates of 2008.

According to the Seventeenth Transitional Provision, concessions granted to religious organizations could also become community concessions. El Churo Communications, a group that promotes rights, multiculturalism, youth political development and cultural diversity through radio, questions the participation of churches. Because they possess nearly 10 percent of the radio spectrum, churches are considered privileged actors by the Radio and Television Frequencies Audit, carried out in 2009, and by the 2008 report of the Ecuadorian Educational Popular Radio Coordinator.

“If these radios become part of the community sector, the social, popular, indigenous, peasant organizations, [organizations] of women, youth, of African descent or LGBTI, among others, will only have access to 24 percent [of the radio spectrum],” affirms Ana Acosta, spokeswoman for El Churo. “While many church radios have a close role to the popular sectors, the majority have served private interests, including broadcasting messages that go against the secular spirit of the State and human rights, so they are not part of the community sector proposal.”

Cultural Boom?
Another aspect of the law, considered in Section VI, mandates that 60 percent of media programming be nationally produced, 10% of which must be from independent producers. Likewise, in the case of music radio, the law mandates that 50 percent of music that is played be national music.

The Minister of Culture, former radio host Francisco Velasco, maintains “the requirement to expand national production could generate a culture boom in the country.”

Article 102 establishes that audiovisual media must dedicate at least 2 percent of its revenue to finance national production, or 5 percent if the audience of a media exceeds 500,000 people.

As for advertising, the law also establishes that it must be produced domestically by national firms that have at least 80 percent Ecuadorian personnel. Ten percent of advertising must be in local and regional media.

Meanwhile, critics say that the law allows the government to control information because Articles 47 through 69 stipulate the creation of monitoring bodies and regulation systems that will make investigative and journalistic reporting impossible.

In fact, the law provides for the creation of the Council for Regulation and Development of Information and Communication, made up of five representatives of different government bodies, including the Office of the Ombudsman, which despite its mandate, has decided to align itself with government policy. This council will regulate the contents the media produces.

Similarly, Article 55 creates the Superintendency of Information and Communication, which will be “a technical body of surveillance, auditing, intervention, and control, with sanctioning power.”

“The superintendent will be chosen by the Council of Citizen Participation and Social Control from a list that the President of the Republic will send,” adds the article.

For Diego Cornejo, President of the Ecuadorian Association of Newspaper Editors, “the entire communications control system is at the hands of two bodies appointed by the government, which does not guarantee that its resolutions will be independent.”

Prior censorship and ultimate liability
Article 18 of the law prohibits prior censorship and allows journalists and editors to sue the media owners if they believe their pieces or opinions have been censured. Through ultimate media liability, Article 19 makes media owners liable, along with journalists and editors, for inaccurate reports or pieces that violate the law.

In this regard, Juan Tibamlombo, Chief Editor of Hoy newspaper, said that “if I cut a piece because I think it breaks the law, the reporter or editor can report me for prior censorship, and if I let it slide, I expose myself to be sued for ultimate liability. With this, newspapers are condemned to write trivial and inconsequential pieces.”
Another one of the controversial articles is the one that prohibits so called “media lynching.”

“If there is corruption, or if a corrupt [person] is uncovered, the media will not be able to talk about this individual because it could be accused of media lynching,” says Tibamlombo. “This law is made to prevent investigation and reporting.”

The apparent democratization that the law proposes: supporting community media, is countered with the series of government controls that will impede criticism, as Cornejo affirms:  “The existence of community media is not synonymous of democracy, if community and private [media] cannot exercise freedom of expression.”
—Latinamerica Press.


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A march in support of new communication rights and 34% of frequencies for community media. (Photo: El Churo Comunicación - Ana Acosta)
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