This essay, written for a Contemporary Canadian Media class at the end of summer 2013, explores themes of media concentration, commercialization and censorship against two different backdrops. One is the Canadian media landscape, with its market-driven economy, and the other is Ecuador, a Third World nation part of the Socialist wave sweeping over that continent and, therefore, putting into practice more rigorous governmental and civilian regulatory bodies on the media and other aspects of society. When exploring Ecuador’s case, I dissect its new Media Communications Law, passed June 2013, and explore whether its purpose is to muzzle journalists or, rather, to codify a set of professional standards that would liberate them instead.
It was submitted on August 9, 2013.
Pages: About 19
The 21st century has ushered in monumental changes around the world that, one way or another, have challenged the status quo. From social revolutions toppling tyrannical governments down to revolutions in the way people conduct business and practice their professions, the words “21st century” now often precede the title of almost everything in order to signal its evolutionary character. As such, we read and hear titles such as 21st Century Journalism, 21st Century Socialism, 21st Century Capitalism, 21st Century Revolution, 21st Century Feminism, and the list goes on and on. In this age of change — precisely because of it — what until now has been accepted as the World Order, however implicitly, is now being challenged; it is being placed on its head, and the world is analyzing more closely than ever the political, social and economic phenomena that occur well beyond their own borders in order to better comprehend their own realities.
One of these monumental changes has been the revolutionizing processes that have swept many Latin American countries, among them Ecuador. The socialist movement, which began with late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who in turn dubbed it 21st Century Socialism, has been hailed and criticized around the world, including the Latin American countries that have shaped that notion one way or another in order to fit their own political, social and economic realities. In Ecuador, the Christian Socialist government of President Rafael Correa, now in its third term, has acquired overwhelming support from the masses, though the business and political elite continuously denounce it as dictatorial and undemocratic. Indeed, in the last presidential elections, Correa won well over 60% of the votes, consolidating the Citizenry Revolution that he has helped foster in that country. But the successes or failures of these movements is not the focus of this paper, per se.
Rather, it will explore the detrimental effect that the capitalist impetus to commercialize the media has had on the citizenry’s access to an objective plurality of voices and space for public debate. To do this, I will compare the different positions that Ecuador, through its Organic Communications Law, and Canada have each taken towards the issue of concentration of ownership and conglomeration.
ECUADOR’S MEDIA LANDSCAPE
Until the turn of this century, Ecuador was a relatively unknown nation. To the political and economic elite, it was known for its opened doors to transnational corporations and its complacent, if not outright submissive, political leadership. But to most regular people, Ecuador was a tiny country somewhere between Venezuela and Colombia, and home to the Galapagos’ Islands. To others, perhaps more in tune with the changing political realities of our world, the country was also known for its rampant poverty and corruption, the latter of which was particularly notorious among the political and business elite. But today, after nearly seven years since Correa’s PAIS Alliance Movement party took office, the country has made headlines around the world for quite different reasons, namely the massive reduction of poverty (still ongoing), the campaign against political corruption and the overall democratization of the country’s institutions. One such instance of the latter is the new Organic Communications Law, passed on June 14, 2013 by an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly, which is largely populated by Correa’s party.
But to understand the merits of the law, some background on Ecuador’s media is necessary.
From the mid-1990s until Rafael Correa was elected for the first time in 2006, Ecuador went through seven different presidents. None of them ever finished their full term. This political instability, caused by rampant corruption in each administration, helped Ecuador become known in the year 2000 as “the most corrupt nation in Latin-America,” according to Antonio Checa-Godoy’s essay, La banca y la propiedad de los medios: El caso de Ecuador (Banking and property of the media: The case of Ecuador). Added to this, was about half a dozen coup attempts, a crippling financial crisis and an exodus of so many Ecuadorians that, in 2005, the amount of people that had left totalled about six per cent of the national wealth.
During that financial crisis, which climaxed between 1999 and 2001, the tight link between bankers, politicians, business elite and the media surfaced. Checa-Godoy, in the same essay, cites a report made by two North American journalists at the beginning of this century, wherein they find that “all media in Ecuador are in the hands of people linked with the commercial and political elite” and that “media owners…don’t act as guarantors of the democratic order [but instead] use the media to protect their own interests and those of their friends and, in occasions, to attack their rivals.”
This tight link meant that when many of the important banks in the country began liquidating their assets and declaring bankruptcy, many of the radio, television and print newspapers that were owned by these groups also began closing their doors.
In the year 2000, La Razon, a daily newspaper active since 1965, shut down as Filanbanco, its financial axis, went bankrupt; another publication titled El Telegrafo, which was owned by El Banco del Progreso, which in turn found itself amid a scandal over financing Jamil Mahuad’s campaign in 1999-2000, was taken up by the Agencia de Garantia de Depositos (Deposits Guarantee Agency) precisely due to that scandal, but not before it was used by the bank to declare that all its financial problems were caused by the then incumbent government.
Despite a law passed in 1995 to combat this kind of concentration — Ley de Radiodifusion y Television — most major publications and radio and television news networks have come under the power of other similarly powerful families and banking groups with their own political biases, ties and interests: El Metropolitano is owned by the Cevallos-Balda family, financed through Bancomex; Egas Grijalva owns Teleamazonas, Dinediciones magazines and is a shareholder of the daily Hoy; ETV Telerama is owned by the Eljuri group, financed through Banco del Azuay; El Comercio is owned by the Mantilla family and financed by Banco del Pichincha, created in 1906, the same year as the daily. The Mantillas also own an evening newspaper, Ultimas Noticias, a chain of magazines, and a wide network of radio stations. Circumventing that anti-accumulation law was easy due to high levels of corruption within all political and economic elite circles, through strategies such as the creation of fictitious companies or transfers to sympathetic third parties, constant exchanging of properties and outright fraud. Indeed, a 2011 UNESCO report (two years before the passing of the Organic Communications Law) cited another report by the Radio and Television Frequency Audit Commission which found that by that year in Ecuador, there were merely eight families controlling the entire media spectrum.
During this crisis, the media lost credibility as it passed to be a mere loudspeaker for the interests of its owners, who would routinely appear on television to defend themselves against evidences of corruption and to attack their rivals, who, in turn, would do the same through their own media outlets. Journalists either lost all credibility themselves in front of the masses for echoing such views, or lost their jobs when they refused to do so.
It is against this dismal background, which President Rafael Correa has called a “media dictatorship,” that the Organic Communications Law was born.
The Organic Communications Law
When Rafael Correa was elected in 2006, he noted (in a conversation with Julian Assange) that five of the seven privately-owned television channels were in the hands of bankers, while the state owned none, according to GreenLeft.com, an alternative news website established in Australia since 1990. The website also says that only “months after Correa became president, 11 big Ecuadorian daily newspapers published the same front-page editorial attacking him.” In fact, according to the GreenLeft.com website, U.S. embassy cables in 2009 “acknowledged that there was truth to Correa’s claim that ‘the Ecuadorian media play a political role, in this case the role of the opposition.'” The cable also stated that, “Many media outlet owners come from the elite business class that feels threatened by Correa’s reform agenda, and defend their own economic interests via their outlets.” Other cables have also revealed the collusion among media barons to downplay the banking crisis at the beginning of the century, which the media, of course, has chosen to ignore.
It was precisely this type of power that the media had wielded over every other aspect in the country, and which had ushered in and dethroned all those previous presidents. To combat this type of lynching, in 2008 Correa proposed a referendum to re-draft a new constitution that would make the right to information a human right and which would ban bankers from having business interests in the media. The referendum was successful, but this was only the first step. In 2011, another amendment was made to the constitution to ban media corporations from having business interests in other industries — precisely the type of convergence that has characterized the Canadian media landscape, particularly over the last decade.
Meanwhile, the Organic Communications Bill was drafted and put forth in the National Assembly by 2009. From then until June of this year, there had been multiple official debates on the bill (on December 22, 2009 and January 5, 2010; then again on November 16, 22 and 24 of 2011, on April 11, 2012 and finally on June 14, 2013), but with an Assembly largely populated by opposition members, the bill was time and time again shot down. However, opposition ministers were unable to agree on anything but their disdain for Correa and his leftist government, so when the votes for the new assembly members were casted, the overwhelming majority of the electorate chose ministers of the united PAIS party, giving them 100 of the total 137 seats in the National Assembly: a three quarters majority. As such, in June 14, 2013, after the final debate, the bill was finally passed. The Organic Communications Law first came into effect on June 25, 2013.
CANADA’S MEDIA LANDSCAPE
Unlike Ecuador, Canada has not been recognized internationally for its disproportionate levels of poverty or political corruption, though instances of both are not unknown to Canadians. However, particularly due to Canada’s reputation as a free and democratic state, the fact that media concentration at the turn of the century “was among the world’s highest,” according to Marc Edge’s Essay titled Convergence after the collapse: The catastrophic case of Canada, was worrisome to everyone interested in the notion of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press, two of Canada’s most sacred rights outlined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In fact, the levels of concentration had reached such a peak that federal government inquiries by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in 2001 and a Senate committee in 2003 were prompted.
It is therefore possible to draw parallels between Ecuador’s media landscape before 2006 and Canada’s own media culture due precisely to the neoliberal impetus that was placed on the news, which in turn made it a commercial enterprise.
Similarities with Ecuador
For instance, Edge explains that since the 1980s, when a law prohibiting cross-media ownership was lifted, Canada’s media landscape began to shrink as more and more corporations bought out smaller outlets. However, it wasn’t until the new millennium, with the advent of the Internet and social media, that the entire landscape was radically transformed. The only difference between Canada at this point and Ecuador was that in the former, the actual law prohibiting media concentration had been removed, while in Ecuador, despite the existence of a similar prohibition, the law was simply circumvented by employing the tactics mentioned above (selling property to third parties, fictitious companies, fraud, etc.).
Moreover, in Canada, at the turn of the century, there were three media giants that were either television networks buying out newspapers, or newspaper corporations buying out television networks.
CTV, the country’s largest private network, was acquired by telecom giant Bell Canada Enterprises, which then partnered with the Globe and Mail national newspaper to create a Cdn $4-billion multimedia colossus known as Bell Globemedia. Third national network Canwest Global Communications bought Canada’s largest newspaper chain, Southam Inc., for Cdn $3.2 billion. Quebecor, a regional newspaper company that started in the province of Quebec but expanded nationwide with its 1998 purchase of the mostly tabloid Sun Media chain, then paid Cdn$5.4 billion for Quebec’s largest cable company, Group Videotron, which owned the regional TVA network.
This level of concentration of ownership is what prompted the first inquiries in 2001 by the CRTC, which ended up proposing that a “firewall” be created to separate the print and broadcast journalism aspects of the conglomerates. Though Quebecor and CTV at first agreed, saying that it would not be feasible to fuse such disparate aspects of journalism, Canwest’s line was different, claiming that multimedia integration was the next logical step to create, as its CEO, Leonard Asper, said: “A massive, creative content-generation machine.” In fact, Asper went as far as to say that any attempt by the CRTC or any other body to impose such a code of newsroom separation was tantamount to a “serious imposition against freedom of speech.” That same line is towed by the opposition groups in Ecuador, which claim that the new Organic Communications Law, particularly both its decentralizing aspect as well as the regulatory body that it seeks to create to ensure professional journalistic conduct, is an outright attack on freedom of speech. In fact, on June 14, during the last tabling of the bill before it was passed, opposition members at the National Assembly wore gags over their mouths and held up posters with slogans such as “Life is Nothing Without Freedom of Speech” written in Spanish.
Yet another parallel can be drawn between the two press systems at the turn of the century in terms of censorship imposed by media barons. Just as in Ecuador, where media owners either fired or threatened to fire journalists who refused to echo the owners’ views, so too did the owners of Canwest in Canada begin interfering with editorial independence when its journalists began criticizing politicians that were friends of the Asper family, such as Jean Chretien. During that specific incident, Edge explains, the publisher of the Ottawa Citizen was fired in 2002 for calling for Chretien’s resignation.
Even before that 2002 incident, which Edge says was the “peak” moment of editorial interference by media barons, Canwest had already ordered its “major newspapers to publish ‘national’ editorials written at company headquarters” and with no dissenting opinions. When reporters began protesting by removing their bylines from the newspaper, they were either fired on the spot or ordered to adhere.
The 2003 Senate Inquiry — the Lincoln Committee — was formed partly as a response to that Chretien scandal. It produced an 897 page report with 97 recommendations, which was either not reported by Canwest’s newspapers or significantly watered down to a 71 word-brief in the case of the Vancouver Sun. By 2006 the final report strongly argued that freedom from government interference did not mean freedom to monopolize the market, but, as Edge states, this effort at media reform was “doused by the election of a minority Conservative government earlier that year,” which had been “personally endorsed by…[the] Chairman of Canwest’s National Post newspaper, who appeared onstage at a rally with prime ministerial candidate Stephen Harper.” This was very similar to the 1999-2000 scandal in Ecuador over the blatant financial support by a newspaper of Jamil Mahuad’s presidential campaign. According to Edge, it is at this junction that most political efforts to curtail ownership concentration of the media stopped, when the minister of broadcasting, a former CTV and Canwest executive, “issued a policy response to the Senate report that officially blessed convergence as a business model for Canadian media.”
After 2006, convergence seems to have skyrocketed:
The second wave of media consolidation in Canada of the millennium also saw Montreal-based Astral Media become the country’s largest owner of radio stations by acquiring the 52 stations owned by Standard Radio…The CHUM purchase came three weeks after the Senate report on news media urged limits on media power, and it resulted in three companies controlling more than half of the advertising revenues in Canada. Concentration of press ownership had risen to 87.4 percent by the five largest newspaper chains, while three-quarters of television outlets had become concentrated in the hands of only five owners.
That’s three less owners than Ecuador’s case in 2011. Up to a few weeks ago, in Canada, there were eight giant media conglomerates. Today, after Bell bought up Astral, there are only seven.
These figures and statistics show a very similar pattern between two countries whose press systems are — or, in the case of Ecuador, were — dominated by neoliberal policies. However, beginning in 2006, with Correa’s victory in Ecuador, there has been a dramatic divergence in approaches towards media concentration between the two democracies.
DIFFERENT APPROACHES: DECENTRALIZATION AND PLURALIZATION VS CONCENTRATION
While both countries are democratic, they have different types of democracies that prioritize different types of values and norms. These are reflected in each country’s media systems.
Ecuador’s socialist government has, since 2006, attempted to foster a participatory democracy that places humanistic values before capital, whereas Canada’s traditional capitalistic model — which can be argued fosters a procedural democracy — has instead placed capital gains before social progress. Of course, each nation and each respective government argue that through these different paths, the ultimate goal is always social progress. But if social progress is to be determined (or measured) not only by economic well-being but also by political and social integration of the general population, and if the media, as it is universally contended, indeed plays a crucial role in this attempt at integration through public participation, then it becomes apparent that Ecuador’s press system is more conducive towards that goal through its attempt at decentralizing ownership of the means of communication and pluralizing the media landscape. On the other hand, in Canada, where ownership concentration has skyrocketed, the media has become a tool for a few powerful families to voice their agendas and censor dissenting views, in effect excluding the people from meaningful public participation.
Ecuador: Decentralization and Pluralization through the Organic Communications Law
Ecuador, over the last six or seven years, has begun to flip the neoliberal notion of the press — that is, a press system run by commercial interests — on its head. In its place, Ecuador has enshrined a law to limit the commercial influence over the media so that it may be a source for public debate. This notion may have been best expressed by Mauro Andino, member of the National Assembly from the PAIS movement and main proponent of the law, when at the final tabling of the law he said that the law seeks to create “a series of opportunities and services in order for that freedom [of expression] to really exist for everyone, so that it ceases to be a privilege enjoyed only by those better situated in our society.”
The new law has many aspects that reflect the new values being espoused by the socialist government. These place a premium on the participation by as many citizens as possible in the public sphere. Specifically regarding the decentralization and pluralization of the media, are the following provisions.
Perhaps the most important article in terms of pluralization is Article 106, which redistributes the radio and television frequencies in thirds: 33% for private media, 33% for public media and 34% for community media. It also seeks to erode monopolies by limiting every natural person or legal entity to “one main radio station frequency concession in AM, one in FM and one in television… 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.” This is part of the process to, as Article 13 stipulates, “facilitate the participation by citizens in the processes of communication.”
An article found in the website Latin America in Movement succinctly summarizes the cultural aspect of the law, which seeks to promote national content in an equitable way:
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.
There are other provisions calling for private advertisers to allocate some of their budgets towards community media; provisions requiring journalism to be practiced only by professional journalists, “with the exception of opinion makers, specialized columns and journalistic programmes in the languages of indigenous nations and peoples,” so as to guarantee not only access to information, but to quality information; and yet others to assure the employment of all genders, of disabled people and intercultural integration.
Another aspect of the law which has drawn much attention, including criticism, is in regards to its institutional framework. As the Latin American in movement article explains: “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)” in order to regulate the equitable access to frequencies and monitor violations of the law.
Critics have expressed deep concerns with this, though they have been the same objections raised when the Canadian regulatory body — the CRTC — has tried to do the same.
Canada: A Culture of Centralization
In Canada, ownership has become more and more concentrated, despite different attempts by the regulatory bodies like the CRTC or the Senate to change this.
Analyzing not only the levels of ownership concentration in Canada but rather the government’s response at attempts to change this pattern, it becomes evident that Canada’s democracy is a procedural one, wherein the citizens are merely expected to follow the rules, including voting every four years, but not challenge the status quo, which is a capitalistic model that encourages private ownership with little to no government intervention.
As Edge explains, in Canada, Canwest began touting a “a political agenda that included neoliberal economic policies such as privatization and tax cuts.” Moreover, governments, particularly beginning with Harper’s minority conservative government in 2006, have shown themselves entirely allergic to any type of regulation that would impede media ownership concentration, rationalizing their position by adhering to the core principles of competitive capitalism, i.e. profit. As the 2006 minister of broadcasting is quoted saying by Edge: “The government recognizes that convergence has become an essential business strategy for media organizations to stay competitive in a highly competitive and diverse marketplace.” This, of course, is entirely in line with the comment made by Leonard Asper, as quoted in Edge’s paper, suggesting that through the converge of multimedia platforms, what really has been acquired is a “quantum leap in the product [they] offer advertisers…” What is interesting about these two similar positions is that nowhere in those claims is the citizen nor the access to information mentioned, even as side comments; the focus is always on the advertiser and the marketplace.
The mentality often espoused by these conglomerates, as an article in rabble.ca titled Lockout highlights dangers of media concentration highlights, is that “Big Media are in a better position to protect diversity.” That was the position taken by Quebecor, who locked out its employees in 2007 as the unions were “in the midst of collective bargaining.” And it is also a reflection of the Libertarian/Authoritarian tendency towards concentration of power by those deemed “the elite.” This inevitably leads to an erosion of a diversity of views and opinions, as it happened at The Leader-Post (owned by Canwest) in 2002, when editors changed the wording of an article highlighting Canwest’s censorship of dissenting views.
The rabble.ca article concludes by suggesting that the government plays “a vital role to play in reversing the trend,” but as long as the drive for profit remains a priority, the viability of conglomeration will continue to trump the people’s access to quality, diversified information.
Critics of Ecuador’s Organic Communications Law claim it is a “gag” law trying to muzzle journalists. Others, who have decided not to espouse such a position in the face of the overwhelming support by the people for the law, say that, while it is a good law in principle, the attempt to eradicate all commercial influence from journalism is simply going too far.
Indeed, in a website titled ARTICLE 19, named after the Article 19 of the United Declaration of Human Rights, which stipulates that everyone has a right to freedom of expression and opinion, the following paragraph can be found as part of a June 2012 legal analysis conducted on Ecuador’s new law:
While recognising the importance of diversity of media ownership, ARTICLE 19 considers a blanket ban on financial institutions investing in the media excessive and, insofar as it has been used to weaken critical media outlets, very troubling. The only blanket ban that should be considered is a prohibition on political parties owning broadcasting stations, to ensure sufficient political pluralism in the airwaves. This would require an amendment to Article 32, which states that any natural or legal person has a right to access a broadcasting frequency under equal condition.
It then recommends that the law be amended to not ban bankers from owning media companies and to instead ban political parties from being granted licenses.
But those recommendations and criticisms are callous, to say the least, when a thorough analysis of Ecuador’s media landscape is undertaken, which reveals that it was precisely those types of principles and priorities that drove the country to political, social and economic collapse, exacerbated — or perhaps even fostered — by partisan media concentrated in the hands of a few bankers and wealthy families. Not to mention the fact that Canada’s media now faces precisely the same type of problems that Ecuador’s media was facing (and, to a degree, continues to battle) before the current government changed the nation’s priorities to focus on humanistic values rather than the pursuit of profit.
Those recommendations reflect precisely the capitalistic notion that government is to be disdained while business-men are to be revered. But one cannot help but reflect, instead, on the words that President Rafael Correa recently pronounced at a journalistic summit among Latin American nations. Correa suggested that contrary to the idea that politics must be demonized, as is the culture in capitalistic countries, the public is best served when it is mirrored by a responsible government that places limits on the power that business can yield over society, in this case, over the media.
1. Article 19. Ecuador: Law on Communications: Legal Analysis. June 2012. Web. http://www.article19.org/data/files/medialibrary/3390/12-07-26-LA-ecuador.pdf. Fri. 9 Aug. 2013
2. Barlow, Maude. “Lockout highlights dangers of media concentration.” rabble.ca. 25 Sept. 2007. http://rabble.ca/print/news/lockout-highlights-dangers-media-concentration. Thu. 8 Aug. 2013
3. Burch, Sally. “Ecuador finally has its new communications law.” Latin America In Movement. 17 June, 2013. http://www.alainet.org/active/64779&lang=en. Thu. 8 Aug. 2013
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9. Martinez, Alejandro. “Ecuador’s controversial communications law in 8 points.” Journalism in the Americas. Np. 20 June, 2013. https://knightcenter.utexas.edu/blog/00-14071-8-highlights-understand-ecuador%E2%80%99s-controversial-communications-law. Mon. 5 Aug. 2013
10. “Registro Oficial de Ley Organica de Comunicaciones.” Asamblea Nacional. http://alainet.org/images/Ley%20Orgánica%20Comunicación.pdf
11. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Assessment of Media Development in Ecuador – 2011. Quito: UNESCO, 2011. Web. http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CI/CI/pdf/IPDC/ecuador_mdi_report_eng.pdf Mon. 5. Aug. 2013