Ecuador’s Congress approves thorny media law

QUITO, (Reuters) – Ecuador’s Congress yesterday passed a law creating a state watchdog to regulate newspaper and television content, a move critics called a blow to free speech but the government hailed as a step toward more balanced media.

The law represents a victory for socialist President Rafael Correa’s in his six-year battle with the country’s media during which he has sued several media outlets for libel and insulted reporters with epithets such as “wild beasts” and “rabid dogs.”

Opposition lawmakers, who wore gags during the debate, say the law will allow the government to control media through loosely defined regulations that require information be accurate and balanced.

Government officials, however, said it will make communications more democratic.

“This law is a milestone that separates the before and after in the history of communication and access to information by all Ecuadoreans,” Political Management Minister Betty Tola told reporters.

Several rights groups including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International have expressed concern that the Correa government might be trampling on freedom of expression.

“One of this law’s main flaws is the creation of a new mechanism for regulating the traditional media and their websites. Another is its attempt to influence how the profession of journalism is defined and practiced,” Reporters Without Borders said on Friday.

The law calls for the creation of a watchdog that can impose fines and force media outlets to issue public apologies if it concludes that they defamed people or that the information published could prompt a “violent” reaction from an audience.

The law also calls for a redistribution of broadcast frequencies and reserves 33 percent of frequencies for state media, 33 percent for privately owned broadcasters and 34 percent for indigenous groups. But it will not take away existing concessions to radio and TV networks.

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