By Sally Burch*
In an atmosphere of festive social mobilization, the National Assembly of Ecuador adopted, last Friday June 14, the Organic Communications Law(1), mandated by the 2008 Constitution. It has taken more than four years for the Law to come to light.
The Law reflects the new democratizing trend with respect to communications that is taking shape across Latin America. The most significant antecedent for this is Argentina’s Audiovisual Media Law. For those social groups and movements involved in defending this orientation, it is not only an important achievement for Ecuador, but also a significant precedent for the continent.
In submitting the Law to the vote, its proponent Mauro Andino -- Member of the Assembly from the (governing) PAIS movement, appealed to the spirit under which the law was elaborated, which implies "recognizing the enormous value and the importance of freedom of expression formulated in international instruments of human rights", but also – he said – “adding a series of opportunities and services in order for that freedom to really exist for everyone, so that it ceases to be a privilege enjoyed only by those better situated in our society."
Among the central changes introduced by this Law, Andino emphasized the definition of social communication as a public service that must be provided with responsibility and quality of content. The Law prohibits previous censorship, but at the same time emphasizes ultimate media liability for content they publish; and it defends the rights of press workers, with employment security. It establishes the redistribution of radio frequencies, with 33% for private media, 33% for public media and 34 % for community media (to be applied gradually) and the elimination of monopolies in audiovisual media (no more than one main radio station frequency concession in AM, one in FM and one in television, to any one natural person or legal entity). In addition, in conformity with the results of the Radio Frequencies Audit, undertaken three years ago, those airwave frequencies that were assigned illegally or whose beneficiaries have not complied with their legal obligations, will revert to the State, freeing up frequencies for other sectors.
These and other clauses incorporate the central proposals made by advocates of democratizing communication, which include those designed to encourage cultural production, such as the obligation for 60% of daily broadcast programming (in time-slots apt for the broader public) to consist of nationally-produced contents (of which ten per cent must come from independent producers); and a minimum quota in musical programs of 50% music produced, composed or performed in Ecuador, complying with payment of royalties.
Among the innovations introduced in this final version of the Law, is the obligation for private advertisers to allocate at least 10% of their annual advertising budget to media with local or regional coverage. This is designed to guarantee that media with a smaller broadcast range or lower print run, and those located in rural areas, may share in advertising income.
With respect to labour rights, the new legislation stipulates that the hiring of workers in media of national scope should conform to "criteria of equity and equality between men and women, intercultural representativity, equality of opportunity for disabled persons and intergenerational participation." And as a guarantee of the quality of information, while the law recognizes that "all persons will freely exercise their communication rights", it establishes that permanent journalistic practice must be undertaken by professionals in journalism or communication (with the exception of opinion makers, specialized columns and journalistic programmes in the languages of indigenous nations and peoples). In addition, it obliges the media to provide economic, technical and material resources for their employees for the adequate exercise of their journalistic tasks.
Another innovation is the prohibition of "media lynching", understood as “the dissemination of information that is expressly and recurrently designed to destroy the reputation of a natural person or legal entity or to impinge on their public credibility."
One aspect that should be central, because of its potential to democratize radio frequencies, but which is only marginally mentioned in the Law, is that of digital frequencies, which in fact are already being introduced into the country before the establishment of clear policies and an adequate legal framework. The new legal body does contemplate the need for an "equitable distribution of frequencies and signals made available through the digitalization of radio and television systems"; and it also stipulates that "the number of new frequencies and signals of radio and television that result from the transition from analogue to digital technology will be administered by the State." However, the notion that this is a merely "technical" question still prevails, and therefore it has been left for the Telecomunications Law -- in preparation-- to deal with this issue.
One of the most polemical themes is the institutional framework. The new Law creates a Council of Regulation and Development of Information and Communication, as a regulatory body (composed of representatives of the Executive Branch, of the National Councils of Equality, of the Council of Citizen Participation and Social Control, of Autonomous Decentralized Governments and of the Ombudsman); a Superintendence of Information and Communication (whose head will be named by the Council of Citizen Participation and Social Control, from a shortlist proposed by the Presidency), with powers of sanction; and a citizen Consultative Council, whose role is not yet clear and whose decisions are not binding.
A starting point
Approbation of the Organic Communications Law (which has yet to obtain the presidential sanction, or a possible partial veto) was no longer in doubt, since the election of the new National Assembly that took possession in May, with an ample majority of the PAIS Movement. Nevertheless, it has been a complex and arduous process. Three years ago, three Law bills were presented, one of which was formulated by the Communications Forum, with contributions from communication networks and social and indigenous organizations, but at that time, its central democratizing theses had little support the Assembly or in the government of Rafael Correa.
Later on, during the last 14 months, the Law was paralyzed due to lack of a majority in the Assembly. However, although most social organizations did not proactively mobilize to obtain the law – in contrast to Argentina –, nonetheless these theses gathered legitimacy in society, to the point where even right-wing groups and the mainstream media do not now, as a rule, dare to openly question the fairness of an equitable distribution of radio frequencies.
The adoption of the Law is not the culmination of the process, but rather a starting point. There is already an opposition offensive underway at the national and international level, by big business media, who refer to it as a "gag law", announcing possible legal challenges. But also, true democratization can only be achieved inasmuch as it is taken up by the citizenry, and in particular by grassroots groups, in exercising their right to be heard.
(Translation: Jordan Bishop)
(1) See the law text in Spanish: http://alainet.org/active/64749
*Sally Burch, a journalist, is part of the Latin America in Movement (ALAI) team.
Source: Latin America in Movement: http://www.alainet.org/active/64779
Photo: Ecuador's National Assembly approves new Communications Law (ElCiudadano.gob.ec)
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