May 21, 2013
POLITICS AND the PRESSSaturday, February 23, 2013
Correa’s final fight
The most radical and reform-driven governments in the region seem to find little incentive to freeze their proactive — aggressive, to critics — media policies. The latest example is that of Rafael Correa, the bluntest of all Latin American leaders next to the ailing Hugo Chávez in his crusade against the private media. Correa, like Chávez and like Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, managed to dwarf the political opposition by placing his country’s mainstream media at the top of his rivalry list. The strategy is paying off with re-election victories. Why change?
Only a couple of weeks before Correa’s impressive electoral win last Sunday, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) had placed Ecuador on another list: that of the riskiest 10 countries in the world to be a journalist. “Since he was first elected in 2006, Correa has hurled insults and filed lawsuits against reporters and news outlets and promoted a series of legal measures to roll back press freedoms,” says the CPJ. “The president has made a practice of demonizing the press, routinely calling journalists ‘liars’ if they don’t parrot his government’s views.”
Apart from “liars,” Correa also likes to call the press “corrupt.” The minute after winning a new term — which he said would be his last — Correa said he would now review and push for a Communications bill currently stuck in Congress. The need to introduce a new Communications bill was proclaimed by the 2008 Constitution and narrowly given the thumbs up by the Ecuadorean public in one of the 10 questions of a 2011 referendum. But the bill could not clear a divided parliament since. Correa’s party victory last week clears the way for the bill to be resurfaced. The proposed text, which Correa claims to have not read yet and vows to review with his party’s congressional representatives, seeks to introduce a Content Regulatory Bureau whose reach is still uncertain but critics say could mean trouble for freedom of expression.
“We will now revise this media bill. We will continue to demand a press that is decent, ethical and informative instead of a manipulating and politicking,” the President said the day after his win. “There will continue to be tension between my government and the corrupt press.”
(Note: In a post-victory press round with foreign press, Correa took a swipe at Argentina’s conservative broadsheet La Nación for having allegedly tweaked his comments about the 1994 AMIA bombing. “I have rarely seen such ill intention in taking my words out of context. I have the worst of opinions about that pamphlet,” Correa told the La Nación reporter about her paper).
Most foreign observers like to liken the media policies of Hugo Chávez and Rafael Correa to those of Cristina Fernández. There are similarities but there are also subtle yet important differences. The picture this week of Planning Minister Julio De Vido in the inauguration of Venezuela’s digital television system — built on Argentine technology — next to Vice-President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas point toward the similarities. So does a chapter in the Ecuadorean Communications bill proposal that orders the spectrum of airwaves to be divided in thirds between the State, the private sector and the community sector, something also included in the 2009 Media Act passed in Argentina but yet to materialize.
But the differences include any explicit intention to control content, something that the Argentina Media Act — which is still struggling to go through a legal maze here to be fully implemented — does not do. In Ecuador, the Correa administration established strict limits on campaign coverage both by state-run and private media. A study released after the vote indicated that Correa got almost twice as much radio and television campaign coverage as the runner-up, Guillermo Lasso: 50 hours of coverage for the President versus 26.6 for Lasso (numbers that match quite well with the voting outcome: 57 versus 22 percent).
On a more positive note for Correa, although the Ecuadorean President likes to say he has to respond to “the Ecuadorean public, not to the media,” he does not avoid the press and has made a political hobby out of tackling press conferences and one-on-one interviews with journalists of all sorts and nationalities, many of them very critic of his administration. On Thursday, he spent two hours responding questions to foreign correspondents and he does that on a regular basis. President Fernández de Kirchner has only given a handful of press conferences in her over five years in office. Co-rrea has also ordered journalists wages up almost 70 percent to reach a minimum of US$817. The Argentine government has not played a role in journalists’ collective wage negotiations.
If confirmed, the showbiz news that television host Marcelo Tinelli would leave Grupo Clarín’s Canal 13 to return to the prime-time air of rival Telefé could become the political event of the year. Tinelli has millions of viewers glued to TV for his evening variety show, which also gets political on electoral years. Losing Tinelli would be a loss for Grupo Clarín, in yet another crucial year in its fight to the finish with the administration over the implementation of the Media Act, whose anti-trust chapter that would force the media giant to downsize is expected to land in the hands of the Supreme Court sometime in the near future.