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Plenary Assembly of Ecuador will study reforms to the country's controversial Communications Law



Ecuador’s Organic Law of Communication (LOC, for its initials in Spanish), considered by press freedom organizations as the most repressive law of the continent, could be reformed before the end of 2018.

This is according to César Ricaurte, director of the Andean Foundation for the Observation and Study of Media (Fundamedios), one of the entities that make up the Democratic Group for the Reforms of the LOC, which has worked for months to achieve significant changes.

The group’s work, as well as what Ricaurte sees as “the will” of the current president, Lenín Moreno, had its first victory when the Commission of Collective Rights of the National Assembly approved the report for the first debate on reforms of the LOC in the plenary of the Assembly.

The Commission approved the report based on the initiative sent by the Executive and in fourteen other proposals, El Universal published. This document proposes to reform 40 articles, add 22 and repeal 11 of the LOC, the newspaper added.

After the approval, which took place on Sept. 5, the president of this Commission must send the report to the president of the Assembly to schedule this first debate, Fundamedios reported.

“The expectation is that we already have a reformed law towards the end of this year,” Ricaurte explained to the Knight Center. “The Group [has tried] to promote the reforms to the Communication Law under the common principle that unites us, which is compliance with international standards.”

To comply with these standards, what is sought is to eliminate controversial legal figures created with the LOC such as media lynching or prior censorship by omission, Ricaurte explained.

The figure of media lynching could turn a journalistic investigation into a crime because it does not allow the publication of information "produced in a concerted manner and published repeatedly" that discredits a natural or legal person.

In the case of prior censorship by omission, some media were sanctioned for not publishing information that public officials or civilians considered of public interest. With this figure, for example, seven media outlets were sanctioned in 2017 for not having reproduced an article from an Argentine newspaper that reported on alleged offshore accounts of a former presidential candidate of the opposition, Últimas Noticias reported.

Despite these changes, one of the most significant reforms that could be approved by the Assembly has to do with the elimination of the Superintendency of Information and Communication (Supercom) that created the LOC when it was approved in 2013. Supercom, which monitors media content and enforces law, has the power to initiate investigations against media or journalists, as well as to impose sanctions when deemed necessary. The sanctions can range from fines to publishing rectifications or public apologies.

According to data from the entity after its first four years, – from June 25, 2013 to June 2017 – it had opened 1,081 cases against media and journalists. According to a 2017 study by Fundamedios, 675 ended in sanctions ranging from rectifications, replies, deliveries of copies of programs, public sanctions, administrative measures, among others.

In that study, Fundamedios calculated that the entity had received US $531,288 in fines from media. However, Fundamedios clarified that it could not obtain information on the official amount.

Other sanctions that were not monetary also generated controversy. One of them was when Supercom forced the cartoonist of El Universal newspaper, Xavier Bonilla 'Bonil,' to rectify one of his works. On several occasions, both 'Bonil' and El Universal appeared before Supercom in proceedings, some of which ended in sanctions.

“In the end, the Supercom was the executing agency, or one of the executing agencies of that policy of systematic harassment against the press,” Ricaurte said.

At present, according to Ricaurte, the entity is in a “transition period” following the appointment of an interim Superintendent after Carlos Ochoa was removed. "At this moment the current Superintendent is reviewing the processes, is reviewing the accounts of this organization, with a view to its imminent disappearance," Ricaurte said.

In fact, the current superintendent, Édison Toro, told the Assembly Committee that he was analyzing the first reform report, which he considered "necessary" to eliminate that entity.

Also, in a recent talk about the new methodology that Supercom will have to analyze content, Toro said that "we have shown that the sanction did not help absolutely anything, except to limit the freedom of expression. That did not help as a society. "

Although the reforms included in the document approved by the Commission are important according to the Reform Group, there are other issues that require discussion.

For Ricaurte, the issue of the "institutional design" maintained by the National Communication Council (Cordicom) whose conformation is "exclusively political" is worrisome. That is to say, that in its concept it has no independence from the Executive nor from the Congress, and that it does not prioritize issues such as technical capacity.

It also worries Ricaurte that classified information is maintained, as well as the prohibition of publishing information on ongoing legal proceedings which could "prejudice journalistic investigations."

Reform, but also repair

For organizations like Fundamedios, the LOC was an instrument used by then President Rafael Correa in his war against media. Since the ex-president took office in 2007, he declared the press the number one enemy.

Correa used his Saturday programs, known as sabatinas, to attack media who he called on several occasions “corrupt press” or “hitmen with ink,” among other stigmatizing statements.

For Ricaurte, in the years of Correa as president, there was a "systematic harassment against the press."

“One of the tasks that we have imposed from Fundamedios and diverse sectors is exactly what we have called Memory and Reparation, which basically means that the State recognizes that there was a systematic policy of harassment against the press, violation of the right to freedom of expression and that precedes the reparation of the victims,” Ricaurte said.

According to Ricaurte, this repair is “mostly symbolic”. “We think it is very important not only for Ecuador but for the region that there is full recognition on the part of the Ecuadorian State that these violations were committed and that these violations of a human right, such as freedom of expression, were systematic and ordered from the highest authorities of the State,” Ricaurte said.

“What we hope is that in the Communication Law there is a provision that will proceed to the investigation of what happened in Ecuador during those years against the press and against journalists,” Ricaurte concluded.



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