Friday, December 25, 2009

Free press, or free people

 When journalists write about journalism they can reach such rhetorical heights. Oh la la, la presse libre! To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. To keep power accountable. To communicate the truth. These are lofty goals, and wonderful words. And when journalists have to write about the principles that underscore their daily grind, they easily revert to these grand concepts, as if all journalism ever done was cut from that cloth. 

I'm not condemning the poetic authors of new treatises on the honours of journalism, though I do wonder how out of touch with their own profession they are. But reader,  be wary. Those concepts let off some powerful fumes, and there is danger of intoxication.

I am writing, specifically, about the case of a new law that the legislative assembly of Ecuador created. It's a law that would regulate the media. The Inter American Press Association warned it would "affect press freedom and free speech by breaching inter-American principles on the public's right to information." The BBC correspondent in the capital said that the law is so bad that from all "across the political spectrum, journalists and members of civil society are opposing it." The Reuters article is so down on it, that they've earned some extra special attention from me, below the jump.

See, I think these outsiders are trusting too much in what they are reading. All of their sources are the very outlets whose hegemony over information in the country is threatened by the new law. The powerful newspapers, TV and radio stations say they can regulate themselves, that anything else is censorship. But I’d argue that this campaign for “free speech” they are waging is a perfect illustration of why some sort of regulatory law is needed. Right now, they hold the talking stick, and by the power vested in them by MONEY, they are the only voices getting through.


Carlos Vera, a former television journalist, led two rallies against the Communication law this month (the rallies happened to coincide with the launch of his new book). His rallies received extreme coverage, taking up whole front pages and in some papers, more pages inside. He has thus made himself the poster-boy of the privileged, established communicators in Ecuador who hide under the shroud of "freedom" when the only freedom they care about is their own. [read a translation here of blogger Galo Benítez’s interpretation of the mainstream media: “What irks the media elite is that there is no law that infringes on freedom of expression as such, but to the freedom of private businesses, which are affected by the scope of the bill which seeks to make certain reforms to democratize in part the right to communicate.”]

The Reuters article  in the NYT is an example, of the oversimplification, and opinion, that has been reaching the international press, instead of the true story. The comments attributed to Correa are not about the TV station the story discusses. They are about the new law. And the only reference Reuters made to the new law is:

"The suspension came as the country's lawmakers are debating creation of a government-controlled watchdog with powers to punish journalists in a measure critics say is a crackdown on media freedoms."

Thirty-seven pages of legislation, 104 articles and several resolutions boiled down to that? "Government-controlled watchdog with powers to punish journalists" – Reuters manages to make the proposed body sound like a re-incarnation of the Spanish Inquisition. But the “council,” as it is to be called, isn’t that scary at all. It's actually fairly similar to a body Canadians are familiar with:

"The CRTC regulates all Canadian broadcasting and telecommunications activities and enforces rules it creates to carry out the policies assigned to it ... The CRTC reports to the Parliament of Canada through the Minister of Canadian Heritage,"
Shocking! A government controlling the airwaves! How can this be allowed!

Ok, so the law is long and the debates surrounding it are complicated. Both of the international outlets that covered the story latched on to the familiar narrative: freedom. But freedom of the press is an empty concept in a media environment where journalism does not serve the public interest. “Journalism” in Ecuador does NOT follow the same ethical precepts I was taught in journalism school. There are no standards of attribution, accuracy, or accountability to the reader. 

According to one set of numbers, 43% of journalists in Ecuador say that they consider that the corporate interests of their outlet are weighed above the freedom of expression. 44% have abstained from including information in an article out of fear or out of direct pressure from the owners of their paper (according to a representative from the International Centre of Latin American Higher Education in Communication, or CIESPAL by its Spanish acronym, who is in a clip nine minutes in to this gov't-sponsored PSA).

To enumerate the excesses of the media would take up an entire article (actually, there are blogs already dedicated to that task). Also, I will have to write about more specifics of the law later, when I’ve had a chance to finish reading it (or, when it comes up for debate again in the House of Assembly, January 5).

So I will conclude with some words attributed to Rousseau I’ve seen tossed around in this debate, which capture it well:
“Between the weak and the strong, it is freedom which oppresses and law that liberates.”
Ah, and I forgot: Happy Christmas to all.







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