(Washington, DC) - Ecuador should amend provisions of the proposed Communications Law to ensure that it meets its obligations to protect and promote free speech, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Fernando Cordero, president of the National Assembly.

"This law is critical because it will have such a strong impact on basic rights," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "True freedom of expression means encouraging and facilitating the free flow of ideas, and making sure people aren't punished for speaking out, even on unpopular issues."

The proposed law includes positive measures, Human Rights Watch said, such as explicitly prohibiting monopolies and oligopolies in media ownership, a serious problem for freedom of expression in the region. The draft legislation would also promote use of subtitles or sign language to facilitate more equal access for those with hearing disabilities, an important step toward ensuring equality under the law and ending discrimination.

But the letter says certain provisions should be amended to ensure that Ecuador meets its international obligations to protect freedom of expression. These include:

  • Proposed article 9, which includes vague language, such as references to "truthful" information, risks opening the way for censorship. Taken together with proposed article 29, these articles create a classic opportunity for unlawful censorship because they could be misused to introduce laws to prevent the publication of any information government bodies consider "untruthful."
  • Proposed article 102, which would provide an opportunity for undue interference by the government, by, for example, allowing it to impose sanctions on media outlets that do not observe their own ethics codes.
  • Proposed article 18, which requires journalists to be professionals, contradicts international standards set forth in the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, which state that requiring a university degree to practice journalism is an unlawful restriction on freedom of expression.

In addition, the proposed law does not adequately address three important issues. It does not decriminalize defamation of public officials, which is critical to promote vibrant public debate essential to a democracy. And it fails to sufficiently regulate the obligation imposed on all radio and TV stations to transmit official speeches, as well as the process by which public money is used to purchase advertisement opportunities for government use.

"No one questions that a genuine democracy requires separation of powers, free and regular elections, and an independent judiciary," the letter says. "Another key indicator to measure democratic progress is the extent to which a government protects and promotes basic rights such as freedom of expression."