Communications Law Opens the Door to Censorship, Prosecuting Journalists
(Washington, DC) – The Communications Law that the Ecuadorian National Assembly approved on June 14, 2013, seriously undermines free speech. The law includes overly broad language that will limit the free expression of journalists and media outlets.
The government had proposed a Communications Law in 2009 but it faced opposition in the National Assembly. The new National Assembly that formed in May with a majority of members from President Rafael Correa's political party approved a modified version of the original bill.
“This law is yet another effort by President Correa to go after the independent media,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director. “The provisions for censorship and criminal prosecutions of journalists are clear attempts to silence criticism.”
The law, which applies to both broadcast and print media, includes the following problematic provisions:
- It prohibits so called “media lynching” which is defined as “the dissemination of concerted and reiterative information, either directly or by third parties, through media outlets, with the purpose of undermining the prestige” of a person or legal entity or “reducing [their] credibility.” The provision would allow the authorities to order the media outlet to issue a public apology and states that they are also subject to criminal and civil sanctions, imposed by the courts.
- It requires media outlets to issue their own codes of conduct to “improve their internal practices and their communications work” based on a series of requirements such as to “respect people’s honor and reputation.” Although self-regulation of this nature is not in itself problematic, the law provides that any citizen or organization can report that a media outlet violated the requirements, and government authorities can issue a written warning, or impose sanctions.
- It says that journalists must “assume the subsequent administrative consequences of disseminating content through the media that undermines constitutional rights, in particular the right to communication, and the public security of the State.” Journalists deemed to violate this responsibility could be subject to civil, criminal or other sanctions.
International bodies from the Inter-American, European, and United Nations human rights systems have long criticized the use of criminal charges to respond to media allegations made against public officials, as contrary to the interest of promoting vibrant public debate necessary in a democratic society. The Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, adopted by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, asserts that protecting the reputation of public officials should be guaranteed only through civil sanctions.
The new law also opens the way to censorship. The law says that people have a right to “verified, contrasted, precise and contextualized” public information. Similarly, article 18 of the Ecuadorian Constitution states that people have the right to receive “truthful” and “verified” information.
This is directly at odds with the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, which states that “[p]rior conditioning of expressions, such as truthfulness, timeliness or impartiality is incompatible with the right to freedom of expression recognized in international instruments.”
Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights explicitly prohibits prior censorship, and the Declaration of Principles says: “Prior censorship, direct or indirect interference in or pressure exerted upon any expression, opinion or information transmitted through any means of oral, written, artistic, visual or electronic communication must be prohibited by law. Restrictions to the free circulation of ideas and opinions, as well as the arbitrary imposition of information and the imposition of obstacles to the free flow of information violate the right to freedom of expression.”
“Giving the government the power to decide whether or not information is ‘truthful’ will open the door to unlawful censorship,” Vivanco said. “This is an especially alarming provision in a country where the president has a track record of using his powers to target critics in the press.”