Thursday, May 16, 2013

Ecuador: Revolutionizing Freedoms of Expression, Press, and Thought

By Isabel M. Estrada Portales
The Administration of Rafael Correa has decided to pick a fight with people who buy the ink by the barrel, because he needed a good enemy. It helped that most of the mainstream national media lacked any credibility in terms of its independence from powerful groups and interests. This is not just a phenomenon in Ecuador. However, in other countries, such as the United States, other forces have enough economic power to set up influential alternatives.
The mainstream media in Ecuador had always served the very narrow interests of a political and economic elite with utter disregard for the great majority of the people. A public that has never had any real access to the media would be hard pressed to defend a freedom of expression, and much less, a freedom of the press, they didn’t know they had. This is particularly the case in the face of other significant improvements that directly impact that very same public.
I know, from very personal experience, how much the Ecuadorian people have suffered and still suffers the impact of brutal inequalities and inequities. I also know the dictatorial efforts of the right in the past – and, yes, most of that under the lowered gaze of the United States… when the enemy of our enemy was our friend, albeit distasteful.
As in all the other Latin American countries swept by a new and invigorated left, the people, the poor, discovered one day that they were a lot many more, and that each had one vote. So, a smart leader who can offer a new proposal, that did not include a war, and did include the needs of the forgotten majority could be voted in real quick.
But, as a Cuban, I also saw this movie before. And as a rabid leftist, I want the left to work, once and for all, and to be inclusive, and democratic, and to continue to win because it has a better proposal that can be defended and debated, and fought out in the press, in all the press, and in private blogs, and in community media, and everywhere. Without fear.
I am arrogant and believe I know best. In that regard, I’m a lot like President Correa. That’s my eternal source of disappointment with U.S. politics. I know I’m right and they are wrong. I know abortion should be legal, safe, and rare – and that accessible contraception would go a long way towards that goal; I know guns should be banned; and I know universal health care is the only way to go.
But in my old age I have come to realize that the other 49 per cent who lost this time around – as wrong as they are, in my never humble opinion – believes things just as strongly, and they cannot be discounted. Consensus has to be built, and that is a daily process. Otherwise, we have a dictatorship of the majority, while the defense and respect of the minority should be the cornerstone of a political process. A dictatorship of the majority, by the way, does not help strengthen the institutions, which are the repository of a vibrant democracy.
Consensus is built in the public sphere. The media, with all its flaws, but also with all its possibilities, helps build that consensus, as well as keeps a watchful eye on the workings of the state, the private sector, and all corners of society. And, if new media and technologies have brought about something wonderful, it is the ability of many, from all walks of life, to keep a watchful eye on the workings of the media as well. No need to silence, to threaten, to impose. Wrong information should be fought with right, more information.
The state, also, is not an uninterested party that is always objective and above reproach. The state, any state, cannot police itself. Ironically, too many constraints on the media may end up hampering the democratizing process it is supposedly espoused. The same law or rule that limits or punishes a mainstream outlet can be turned against any other outlet: a blog, a Twitter feed, an Internet radio station.
In Ecuador, commercial and political interests ran the media for a very long time. The supposed wall between advertising and the newsroom was very thin, if it existed. And people know that, particularly now, since it is repeated often enough. But they also know it because they do remember how wrong things were, and how little of that was uncovered. They can also compare how much some outlets are now only too happy to uncover the government’s every failing. So, I guess they wonder: where were you before? And that’s a fair question.
But the government has assumed a wrong role for the media. The president speaks of “journalists opponents of the government,” as if there are supposed to be journalists, or news outlets for that matter, in favor of the government. The role of the media – independent, public, private, even state media if they want to do it right – should be to keep an eye on the government and all sectors of society and to uncover what’s wrong, so that it can be cleansed. The fact that they didn’t do it before is just wrong. What the government could do now is to show them how it is done right. The public, the people – unless we do not trust them – should and will be able to see the difference.
I remember when President Bush kept complaining that the press only reported the collateral damage and the suicide bombers, but never when a new school opened in Bagdad. Well, schools should open. Institutions should run well. Normalcy is not what the press covers… or uncovers. The old adage of the kid who bites the dog… Applauding what the government does well, when it does its job is called propaganda.
When government officials launch a tirade against the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ 2012 Annual Report to the Organization of American States’ (OAS), for expressing concern about Ecuador’s freedom of the press environment, they ignore that the same report also criticizes the current limitations of press freedom in Brazil for the unduly influence of economic and political interests. If there is a place were the press is strong, and has solid rightwing backing, that is Brazil, as President Lula, I’m sure can attest. 
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