01 July 2012


Any port in a storm? With Julian Assange's bid for asylum in Ecuador I note the Human Rights Watch chapter on aspects of information law in that country -
Criminal defamation laws that restrict freedom of expression remain in force and [President] Correa has used them repeatedly against his critics. Some articles of a draft communications law in the legislature since 2009 could open the door to media censorship. ... 
Freedom of Expression 
Ecuador’s Criminal Code still has provisions criminalizing desacato (“lack of respect”), under which anyone who offends a government official may receive a prison sentence up to three months and up to two years for offending the president. In September 2011 the Constitutional Court agreed to consider a challenge to the constitutionality of these provisions submitted by Fundamedios, an Ecuadorian press freedom advocacy group. A new criminal code presented by the government to the National Assembly in October does not include the crime of desacato, but if approved would still mandate prison sentences of up to three years for those who defame public authorities. 
Under the existing code, journalists face prison sentences and crippling damages for this offense. According to Fundamedios, by October 2011 five journalists had been sentenced to prison terms for defamation since 2008, and 18 journalists, media directors, and owners of media outlets faced similar charges. 
President Correa frequently rebukes journalists and media that criticize him and has personally taken journalists to court for allegedly defaming him. In July 2011 a judge in Guayas province sentenced Emilio Palacio, who headed the opinion section of the Guayaquil newspaper El Universo, and three members of the newspaper’s board of directors, to three years in prison and ordered them to pay US$40 million in damages to the president for an article the judge considered defamatory. In an opinion piece Palacios had referred to Correa as a “dictator” and accused him of ordering his forces to fire on a hospital, which was “full of civilians and innocent people,” during the September 2010 police revolt. 
In September 2011 a three-person appeals court confirmed the prison sentence and the fine by majority vote. Correa said in a press conference that he would consider a pardon if the newspaper confessed that it had lied, apologized to the Ecuadorian people, and promised to be more “serious, professional and ethical” in the future. 
In order to rebut media criticism the government has also used a provision of the broadcasting legislation that obliges private broadcasters to interrupt scheduled programs to transmit government messages known as cadenas. According to an independent media observation group, between January 2007 and May 2011, there were 1,025 cadenas totaling 151 hours of broadcasting time, many of which included attacks on government critics. 
Legislation to regulate broadcasting and print media has been under congressional debate since 2009. In the May 2011 referendum voters supported, by a small majority, a proposal to create an official council to regulate the content of television, radio, and print media. Proposals by six ruling party legislators under discussion in the National Assembly in July 2011 would grant broad powers to this council, allowing it to punish media that disseminate “information of public relevance that harms human rights, reputation, people’s good name, and the public security of the state,” terms so vague that they could easily lead to sanctions against critical outlets.
The Ecuadorean government, in a response to similar statements from Reporters Without Borders, sniffed that -
The Ecuadorean government does not silence or avoid criticism that is respectful and it promotes a legitimate debate of ideas. Its communication policy promotes inclusion, democratization and a free access to information. A poorly informed society is the worst of all evils. We therefore have a duty to provide Ecuadoreans with what they need to establish forums for the expression of well-grounded public opinion with the aim of creating citizens who play an active role in the country’s political life.
Assange is, of course, the person who's reportedly been indifferent to redaction before release of sensitive information, exemplified by his reported comment - in WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy about targeting of Afghans as a result of WikiLeaks: "Well, they're informants. So if they get killed, they've got it coming to them. They deserve it."