Rafael Correa’s War on Free Speech
EspañolIn 2014, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa gave an awkward interview at Harvard University in Massachusetts, with a level of English that belied his four years as a student in Illinois. Beyond the distraction of his nervous demeanor, though, one passage should have set alarm bells ringing.
The United States is a very successful country … with very important values; but not necessarily these values are universal values.… For instance, the definition of freedom of press — freedom of expression to slander, etc, the president. Well, this is American opinion: someone who slanders doesn’t have to go to jail.
This eagerness to prosecute people, for expressing a dissenting view of the president, is bad enough on its own, but it is just the start when it comes to Correa. His hypersensitivity and authoritarian tendencies have imposed a censorship cloud and generated widespread intimidation throughout Ecuador.
Correa’s antics run the gamut, from prosecuting newspapers and cartoonists he takes exception with to social-media troll centers to shout down critics. His proxies have managed to block content on Facebook and YouTube, and they are notorious for their scare tactics that go beyond Ecuadorian borders.
The 2013 Communications Law defines information as a public good and communication as a public service, to justify all manner of intervention and redistribution. Private media, for example, are only permitted one third of the radio spectrum — the remainder going to state media and approved “community” media. With the playing field tilted so heavily in favor of Correa’s state apparatus, independent and pluralistic outlets have fallen by the wayside.
Finally, after years at it, Correa has started to garner international attention, including condemnation at the Inter American Press Association and a slot on the US comedy show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
Oliver rightly highlighted the absurdity and embarrassed Correa, so one might expect the president to back down and lay low for a while. Not quite. He sought to up the stakes and proceeded to condemn Oliver in his own Citizen Link TV show.
The latest violation of free speech, however, defies belief with its pettiness. It also shows how far the Ecuadorian president will go when it comes to enforcing his almighty status.
During the May Day celebrations in Quito, a 17-year-old boy made the yuca sign to Correa’s motorcade (equivalent to giving him the finger). Not only did the president stop the car and get out to confront the teenager, he had him arrested, and now Luis Calderón is serving community service as punishment.
While we might be tempted to merely laugh at Correa and his childish behavior, the silencing of a populace is no joke. Correa wants to continue his socialist agenda — the “citizen revolution” — beyond his eight years in office, and is pushing for a constitutional amendment to allow indefinite reelection. Further, “independent” electoral authorities conveniently will not let the matter go to a popular referendum.
With such control of the media and an expanded state workforce under his thumb, Correa could pull off such a coup. But discontent is rising, amid a centrally planned and faltering economy, and Correa and his supporters are getting all the more paranoid. On Friday, during Labor Day protests, they even resorted to hacking La República, as it broadcast live coverage of disapproval.
Will Ecuador become another Bolivarian Alliance disaster? She hangs in the balance, so now is precisely when Ecuadorians and allies abroad must raise their voices, shine the light of accountability, and defy the censorship agenda.