Correa’s proposal for the yet-unnamed commission came during the inaugural summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. The summit, hosted by Hugo Chavez in Caracas, was convened with the goal of strengthening hemispheric political and economic unity. This first meeting of the CELAC brought together thirty-three heads of state to discuss the future of the Western Hemisphere, notably excluding leaders from the United States and Canada.
During the meeting President Correa voiced his desire to create a human rights commission that would operate independently from the already existing Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), formed in 1960 as a part of the Organization of America States. Correa said that he proposed the new commission as an effort to place monitoring responsibility in the hands of Latin American leaders, thus removing it from the “too-obvious presence and prevalence of the United States”. Correa has long been openly critical of the IACHR, attacking it as an organism only to “defend private interests” and “persecute the progressive governments of the region.”
Following the proposal at the CELAC summit, the president of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Jose Miguel Vivanco, sent a letter to the CELAC heads of state in order to address “the unfortunate statements of President Correa.” In the letter, Vivanco asserted that Latin America has “benefited greatly from the Inter-American human rights system” and urged the CELAC “to make the most of this opportunity to promote rights and democracy in Latin America” instead of creating a separate human rights organization which, Vivanco said, would serve “primarily to support and applaud the current rulers.”
Vivanco’s concerns that President Correa intends to replace the IACHR, a human rights ombudsman, with a new organization, which would function as a support for his own government, may seem alarmist. However, these concerns become valid when Correa’s past hostile stance towards human rights, specifically towards freedom of speech, is taken into account.
Rafael Correa, a U.S. educated economist, has enjoyed widespread popularity for his presidency since he first took office in 2007, winning multiple elections and going on to become the first Ecuadorian president to win re-election since 1972. His policies of progressive reform have established a semblance of order in a country that had experienced 7 separate presidents in the 10-year span leading up to the 2007 elections, none of which completed their democratically elected terms.
However, even prior to the CELAC summit, the actions of Correa’s government have raised concerns in the international community. Last month, Transparency International released its 2011 Corruption Perception Index, giving Ecuador’s government a rating 2.7 out of 10, one of the lowest in the region. International organizations such as the IACHR and Human Rights Watch have also expressed concern in regards to Correa’s growing power over Ecuador’s news media and his government’s alleged misuse of arrest and detainment to silence outspoken critics.
One of the major issues of conflict between these international organizations and Correa has been the regulation of Ecuador’s news media. Prior to the Correa administration, Ecuador had a single public media outlet: Radio Nacional de Ecuador. Since 2007, as the government has taken over privately owned media, this number has grown to fifteen, creating a state-owned newspaper, television, and radio network. This by itself is not alarming, as it could be taken as a symptom of Ecuador’s economic growth, however, according to an investigation by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), this public media network “serves largely as a presidential megaphone.”
Correa’s influence over private sources of news media has also grown. Under the new constitution, ratified in 2008, an instance of ambiguous wording has left private media open to censorship and subject to legal ramifications for its writers and reporters. Article 18 Section 1 allows individuals the right to “release truthful, verified, timely, contextualized, and plural information without censorship.” However, it is the government that is given the right to determine what is “truthful" and “verified”, which has allowed for the suspension of several media organizations after they aired reports viewed as negative toward the actions of Correa’s government.
One particular instance is in the case of the Ecuadorian media company Teleamazonas. Teleamazonas is a major media outlet that has openly spoken out against the president. In December of 2009, Ecuador’s Superintendent of Telecommunications used Article 18 to suspend Teleamazonas from broadcasting. This suspension lasted for three days and came in response to a report in May of 2009 that had speculated on the damages of coastal natural gas exploitation on the livelihoods of local fishermen.
Ecuador’s government and Telamazonas have maintained an antagonistic relationship, evidenced by multiple instances of the government requiring Teleamazonas to air presidential rebuttals to reports that the government has called “misinformation”. Mentioned both in a HRW letter to the CELAC and in a report by the CPJ, these temporary seizures of public and private airwaves for the broadcast of presidential messages have occurred on an increasingly frequent basis. Called “cadenas”, these messages are legal under Ecuador’s broadcast law, and have been traditionally reserved for emergency notifications by the president. However, according to Fundamedios, a media monitoring organization based in Mexico, Correa has used these cadenas more than 1,000 times since 2007, broadcasting an estimated 150 hours of government sponsored information.
This aggressive stance towards media companies and broadcasters has also been applied on a more individualized level. Correa has personally filed lawsuits against individual media owners, editors and journalists that he has accused of defamation, which has served to further reduce the autonomy of private media.
In these lawsuits, Correa has used antiquated Ecuadorian “desacato” laws, which under the Ecuadorian Criminal Code proscribes severe monetary penalties as well as lengthened prison sentences for defamation against government officials and other authorities. According to HRW, such laws have recently been abolished in many countries in the region. The IACHR has urged governments to regard desacato laws as detrimental to the freedom of expression guaranteed under the American Convention on Human Rights.
However, in Ecuador, this has not been the case, according to HRW’s Jose Miguel Vivanco. “While other countries in the region are moving toward decriminalizing defamation to comply with international standards, President Correa is taking Ecuador precisely in the opposite direction,” he said.
As a result of using these desacato laws, Correa has been awarded multi-million-dollar settlements from critical journalists and editors, who, in turn, now face several years of prison time. In the most notable case, Correa filed an $80 million defamation lawsuit against a journalist and three directors of the Ecuadoran newspaper El Universo last May. This came as a result of an editorial article written by a journalist, Emilio Palacio, entitled “No more lies”, which referred to Correa as “the dictator” and, according to Correa, accused him of ordering troops to fire against a hospital full of people in the attempted coup in September 2010.
After an extended and highly publicized trial, the court issued a ruling in favor of Correa in what HRW called “a serious blow to free speech in Ecuador.” Palacio and the three directors of El Universo were each sentenced to 3 years in prison and given a combined charge of $40 million in damages to be awarded to Correa. As El Universo has been valued at only $35 million, this puts Ecuador’s news media at risk of losing another news source independent from the government.
The outcome of the El Universo trial could have more far-reaching consequences, according to the IACHR, as the ruling “constitutes a grave warning to any citizen or media outlet that has opinions or information about public officials that could be considered offensive.” The outcome of this trial, and others like it that continue to occur under Correa’s administration, could result in self-censorship by the media, as the journalists withhold information or articles critical of the government out of fear of governmental reprisals.
Correa has rationalized these restrictions on freedom of expression by validating them as methods to combat the influence of the powerful private interests that own the majority of Ecuador’s media. In a speech at Columbia University in September, Correa spoke on the media’s role in democracy, answering the criticisms of his actions. “If the media defend, misinform, or slander our governments, it is called freedom of speech. If a president dares to answer back, it is an attack against freedom of speech,” he said.
Lee Bolinger, President of Columbia University, introduced Correa as the speaker by pointing out the United States, too, has a history of repressing freedom of expression in the media. “Such laws, which make criticism of government officials a crime, typically have been adopted by emerging democracies or other societies seeking to extinguish threats to a fragile political structure,” he said. “The impulse to forbid government criticism has always later been understood to be an abdication of our societies pledge to live by reason, to confront dissent with courage and to be temperate in dealing with misbehavior.”
A collaborative effort by the countries of the CELAC to maintain and monitor basic human rights in Latin American and the Caribbean would be a benefit to the region. However, the demonstrated need of the Ecuadoran government to repress private media in order to maintain what President Correa describes as a balanced message demonstrates that a commission that leaves the Ecuadoran government and Correa largely responsible for the monitoring of Human rights within Ecuador’s borders leaves human rights, specifically freedom of expression, dangerously caught between two political groups: private medias and President Correa’s government.