On May 15, four months to the day after assuming office, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa threatened to invoke a national ‘insult’ law to punish a political opponent who he believes has defamed him. He was resorting to one of the so-called desacato laws, which render those allegedly defaming someone in authority as a potentially criminal act. Such mandates have been on the books of many South American nations since colonial times. The insult law has been unlimbered by Correa with respect to his decision to sue Francisco Vivanco Riofrio, Chief Editor of La Hora, Quito’s major newspaper. The threat posed by Correa against Vivanco is but the latest occurrence in a series of similar incidents pitting the Correa administration against various segments of the private sector and the conservative wing of civil society. President Correa has charged Vivanco with libel because of his newspaper’s statement that Correa is leading the nation with, “mobs, sticks and stones” and rendering the country politically unstable.
Whether or not these words used in the La Hora editorial are sufficiently lethal or necessarily point to invoking an even larger partisan role than has been assumed up to now by the Ecuadorian media is in itself debatable. What is more certain, though, is that Correa seems to be closely following the lead of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who has stepped up his own efforts to confront the far more combative media that he has to face. Furthermore, the atmosphere of partisanship that is beginning to take shape in Ecuador resembles the milieu of political discord in which Chavez and the various avatars of his opposition nervously co-exist.
Does Correa Have a Cause?
Despite the fact that political divisiveness has become more visceral in Ecuador today than in the past, the magnitude of the current conflict should not be exaggerated. The mainstream of Ecuadorian public opinion, for example, may believe that La Hora could be seen as overcritical of the Correa administration, but that the newspaper does not deserve the kind of pressure Correa has initiated for such a relatively modest offence. Furthermore, the defenders of La Hora make the argument that democracy intrinsically allows for the political opposition to function and media outlets to voice their opinions regarding developments in the country, including bashing the president, if need be.
Dissent need not be seen by the Correa administration as being treasonous or mortal. In this case, space allowed for the opposition outlet to function may only toughen the democratic fiber of a nation and give moral ballast to Ecuador’s promising political leadership. The Vivanco brouhaha must be viewed in the context of current patterns in Latin America where authentic political and economic freedoms are being debated and amplified. At the same time, a more ambiguous process exists in which the routine maintenance of democratic institutions do not necessarily guarantee freedom and the existence of social pluralism in a substantive sense. Of course Correa, or Chavez, on their own accord, might respond by arguing that such a definition means that their administration also should have the demonstrated right to profess a socialist or collectivist future, if this is part of their core beliefs, without being bushwhacked.
Gonzalo Marroquin, managing editor of La Prensa of Guatemala and chairman of the Inter American Press Association’s (IAPA) Freedom of the Press Committee and a man whose neoliberal predilections are no secret, has characterized Correa’s case against Vivanco as “a clumsy attempt to file a criminal charge against a news outlet, accusing it of contempt, an archaic concept in a modern democracy and outmoded in Latin America.”
Undeniably, this kind of criticism, which essentially maintains that there is no such thing as professional restraint on the part of media outlets, may ironically lend credence to President Correa’s attempt to at once bridge a menacing social gap in his country by executive fiat, while still reaffirming Ecuador’s reputation as an emerging democracy. Correa clearly feels, though, that much of the Ecuadorian print media has been involved in some of the corrupt political scheming that has done such grave damage to the country’s political fabric. However, the priority that Correa already has given to protecting his own administration against the media’s deprecations may eventually have a negative impact on his overall goals of strengthening democratic institutions that affect the citizenry. Nevertheless, Marroquin’s IAPA found little difficulty in muzzling itself when discussing the foibles of the regional media during the period of military rule, when they served little better than boot lickers to an array of military regimes. La Hora and its supporters maintain that all Ecuadorian citizens and their institutional voices have the right to be protected against unjustified governmental scrutiny or badgering.
How Insulting are “Insult” Laws?
Inherently mainstream hemispheric organizations like the IAPA, which are dedicated to the prosperity of private conglomerates even more than press freedom issues, almost always work to aggressively repeal ‘insult’ laws, which are still residually found in some of the region’s constitutions or regulations. They also attempt to provide their members with a maximum amount of space in which to operate, for good or ill, and often strive to maintain a crusading habitat in which they can criticize and assess leftist governments while serving up their own version of the nation’s political shortcomings. Unfortunately, neither the Latin American media nor the IAPA have particularly noteworthy histories, having accommodated themselves quite handsomely during the era of military dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Guatemala and El Salvador, when fearless reporters were being mercilessly gunned down by rightwing death-squads.
Questions about constitutional protection voiced by the media, are, of course, not limited to Ecuador or Venezuela, but can be raised at any time or place, given the typically ravenous nature of the more extremist whims of the region’s press. Desacato laws have been used one time or another by the authorities even in more securely democratic Chile and once again in Honduras, to protect the standing of sometimes compromised public institutions and political figures. Venezuela’s opposition media, for its part, routinely sees itself as a tribune protecting the nation against insidious developments, insisting on the public’s right to speak out on issues that concern their welfare. But so does the Chavez administration from a different perspective. And while Chavez has been praised for touting his goal of the proliferation of the primacy of the community, he also has been heavily criticized for these same measures.
If both Correa and Chavez hope to secure a consensus in the Andean region on press issues that are bound to arise when the forces of a populist revolution challenge the architraves of the status quo, they might look towards such nations as Argentina, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Panama, Peru, and most recently Guatemala in 2006, which already have eliminated penal codes affecting the rights of journalists. Yet, in most of these countries, a venal and self-censoring press can be readily found.
Venezuela is the only hemispheric country at this time which really has strengthened proper watchdog provisions against a press that could not be described as a votive of responsible journalism. The point being that press responsibility is important as a free press. Moreover, one without the other is as almost impossible. Correa might want to consider strategic factors before putting his presidential reputation on the line in the relatively, if not self-demeaning, petty struggle he now finds himself in against La Hora. If he continues on a confrontational path set into motion by the ridiculous “sticks and stones” charge, he may be waylaid from his main mission of rebuilding Ecuador from the corrupt banana republic which he inherited. But, without somewhat modifying his direction, there is no hope that the media will give him any kind of leeway regarding his relationship with an increasingly contentious legislature. Both Chavez and Correa have, at this point, sufficent political clout to make progressive changes inside their countries without necessarily resorting to populist appeal or political overkill.
The Magnitude of Change
For its part, La Hora has vowed to fight the desacato lawsuit Correa is filing. It has used the defense that the professed insulting editorial was published in regard to an abrasive legal debate in March, when Correa successfully framed a referendum in hopes of revising the nation’s constitution. When some legislators objected, Correa sent the police to bar them from entering the congressional chamber. During the preceding standoff, the courts ruled that 57 lawmakers should be dismissed. This type of presidential activism appears to be emblematic of a rising trend in Latin America whereby the state becomes the principal, if not exclusive, engine of change for the nation even in non-traditional areas and to an unprecedented degree.
Correa also has brought a lawsuit against the Banco de Pichincha because of a purported ‘crime’ it had committed against his moral character. The bank had included Correa’s name on a list of its debtors, an interesting development especially considering Correa’s background as a distinguished financial planner with a doctoral degree in economics, and his noteworthy, if brief, service as finance minister to President Palacio in 2005.
After decades of being in the thrall of Washington’s regional policymakers, it is fair to say that Ecuador, now under Correa, has been learning some valuable lessons in autonomy that are essential if the country’s sovereignty is to be insured along with its desire to make progress within Latin America’s recently invigorated and changed political climate. To this end, Correa has somewhat diverged from free trade talks in hopes that Chavez’s path toward a widening regional trade network, as well as the prospect of hooking into the U.S. market through an Andean pact arrangement, would realize the best of both possible worlds for Ecuador. This denouement would enable him to remain in good stead with the left-leaning bloc to which he belongs, which is empowered by solidarity as well as a distant socialist New Jerusalem in mind. On the other hand, some link-up with the U.S. market might be in the making, providing an enlightened pro-U.S. and a providential alternative path for Ecuador is followed. In this light, and until he chooses, Correa needs to be prepared for the kind of political heat that Chavez is currently receiving from the business elites in his country who now see their comfortable perches being shaken. And, despite the hardships that may, at least temporarily, come from decreased access to Washington, Correa needs to be patient with segments of the country’s civil society, such as its media, each of which will have to make its own adjustment in light of an uncertain future.
Correa will have to be careful not to overstep prudent political boundaries. In other words, he must take care that the average Ecuatoriano does not view the president’s treatment of the media as threatening to his or her own civil liberties. So far, the President has not had this problem, and the level of partisanship now playing out is relatively mild and largely based on a mixture of a genuine difference of political visions as well as the proper tactics required to achieve them.
In an effort to service his slightly bruised public image, Correa has said that he might withdraw the accusation against Vivanco, if the editor publicly apologizes. This would be a beneficent turn. However, if the two men are unable to come to terms, Vivanco, under existing Ecuadorian statues, could be sentenced to up to two years of prison, which would be outlandish given the relatively trivial nature of his remarks.
What remains to be seen is whether Correa will continue to keep his eye on the mark by pursuing a progressive nationalist trajectory, as well as cultivating autonomous policies, without falling into self-incriminating disputes with back-burner political opponents in and outside the media. Inevitably this type of skirmishing will recur in Correa’s near future because too much is at stake, in terms of national destiny, for each side to easily suffer silence. One needs only to look to Venezuela, where the president is facing an even fiercer level of sparring and a much higher level of scrutiny. The present issue for Correa is how to preserve the dignity of his heady mission without tarnishing his ideals, or needlessly sacrificing them.