Rafael Correa hits back over Ecuador’s press freedom and charge of hypocrisy

The Guardian reports: The president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, has hit back at critics who accuse him of hypocrisy for granting asylum to Julian Assange while launching lawsuits and verbal attacks on his country’s own media.

In an interview with the Guardian, Correa defended his approach towards free speech, saying it was necessary to rein in private newspaper, radio and TV owners who had enjoyed too much power for too long, and comparing his campaign to the investigations into Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers in the UK.

“We won’t tolerate abuses and crimes made every day in the name of freedom of speech. That is freedom of extortion and blackmail,” he said in response to concerns about recent crackdowns on private news organisations.

Days before the Ecuadorean government granted asylum to the WikiLeaks founder and promoted itself as a guardian of freedom of expression, riot police in Quito raided the offices of one of the country’s leading magazines, Vanguardia. They confiscated journalists’ computers and prevented publication for a week, ostensibly as a punishment for labour law violations.

It was the second time in less than two years that Vanguardia had been raided. Its journalists are also getting death threats after being denounced by the president during his weekly TV show, and the magazine’s editorial director was recently sued by Correa for $10m in “moral damages” for suggesting the president knew his brother was making millions of dollars from state contracts.

After a public outcry, the president withdrew one suit and issued a pardon in the other, but he defended his right to take such action: “Do we have an unwritten law that we can’t sue a journalist? Since when? So nobody should sue Murdoch and his partners in crime in Britain?”

The editorial director of Vanguardia, Juan Carlos Calderón, had earlier told the Guardian he was being targeted for criticising the administration, and accused Correa of double standards. “The government said it has granted asylum to Assange because he is politically persecuted for defending freedom of expression. But the same thing happens to us,” he said. “This is not a country with the free press described by Correa.”

He is not alone. The domestic press watchdog Fundamedios describes the situation in Ecuador as a low-intensity war on journalists that appears to be escalating. Last year, it recorded 151 cases of physical aggression against reporters, up from 101 in 2009. It says this increase is largely the result of the constant abuse directed at journalists by Correa during his weekly TV broadcast, which is carried by almost every channel.

It also notes that 17 radio stations have been shut down this year for transgressing regulations and that the government has recently issued new rules that will oblige internet service providers to provide the IP addresses of their users to the authorities, even without a court order.

“There is a huge gap between what Correa says about press freedom and reality,” said César Ricaurte, head of Fundamedios. “If Assange were Ecuadorean, I dare say he would already be in jail.” International free press campaigners, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders, have also accused Correa of trying to discredit and intimidate critics.

Correa said such judgments were misguided. “The Ecuadorean and Latin American press is not like the European or North American press, which has some professional ethics. They are used to being above the law, to blackmail, to extort. I am sorry about good people on an international level who defend this kind of press.”

He denied that radio station closures were politically motivated, saying some were simply music channels that failed to conform to broadcasting rules. This will open up space for more public channels.

An insight into Correa’s strategy was given by his chief communications adviser, Fernando Alvarado who described the media as “weeds that need to be cleaned” and replaced by flowers (public and community media outlets) in a recent interview with the Mexican publication Gatopardo.Since Correa – a US-educated economist who describes himself as a moderate leftist – came to power in 2007, there has been a wider range of state and private ownership of newspapers and TV stations. There is more scope for critical non-governmental organisations and greater access to senior officials. The interviews given by Correa on Thursday were carefully staged in terms of lighting and camera work, but unscripted.

Media watchers said Correa’s approach -– particularly in his weekly live broadcasts – was as confrontational as that adopted by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, but less destructive. “In some regards, it is like Chávez. But Chávez went too far. Though there is confrontation here, no TV stations have been closed, which was the case in Venezuela,” said Maurice Cerbino, a professor at Andina Simon Bolivar University. The confrontation, he said, was understandable given the previous situation in Ecuador in which the private media colluded with the government. [Continue reading…]

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