In an atmosphere of festive social mobilisation, the National Assembly of Ecuador adopted the Organic Communications Law on June 14, mandated by the 2008 Constitution. It has taken more than four years for the law to come to light.
The law is part of a new democratising trend with respect to communications that is taking shape across Latin America. The most significant antecedent for this is Argentina’s Audiovisual Media Law.
For those social groups and movements involved in defending this orientation, it is not only an important achievement for Ecuador, but also a significant precedent for the continent.
In submitting the law to the vote, its proponent Mauro Andino ― a member of the assembly from the governing PAIS Alliance movement, appealed to the spirit under which the law was elaborated.
The law implies “recognising the enormous value and the importance of freedom of expression formulated in international instruments of human rights”. But also, Andino said, it adds “a series of opportunities and services in order for that freedom to really exist for everyone, so that it ceases to be a privilege enjoyed only by those better situated in our society”.
Among the central changes introduced by this law, Andino emphasised the definition of social communication as a public service that must be provided with responsibility and quality of content.
The law prohibits previously existing censorship measuers. But it also emphasises ultimate media liability for content they publish; and it defends the rights of press workers, with employment security.
The law redistributes existing radio frequencies. It sets aside 33% for private media, 33% for public media and 34% for community media (to be applied gradually).
It also eliminates monopolies in audiovisual media. This means that any individual or legal entity can own no more than one main radio station frequency concession in AM, one in FM and one in television.
Also, in line 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 the law, will be given back to the State. This will free-up frequencies for other sectors.
These clauses incorporate the key proposals made by advocates of democratising communication. This includes clauses designed to encourage cultural production, such as the 60% of daily programming that is now required to consist of nationally-produced contents.
Of this, 10% must come from independent producers. There is a minimum quota in musical programs of 50% music produced, composed or performed in Ecuador, complying with payment of royalties.
Among the innovations in the final version of the law,is the obligation for private advertisers to allocate at least 10% of their annual advertising budget to media with local or regional coverage. This is designed to ensure media with a smaller broadcast range or lower print run, and those located in rural areas, may share in advertising income.
In regards to workers' rights, the new law stipulates that the hiring of workers in national media conform to “criteria of equity and equality between men and women, inter-cultural representation, equality of opportunity for disabled persons and intergenerational participation”.
It also obliges the media to provide economic, technical and material resources for their employees for the adequate exercise of their journalistic tasks.
Another innovation is the prohibition of “media lynching”. This is understood as “the dissemination of information that is expressly and recurrently designed to destroy the reputation of a natural person or legal entity or to impinge on their public credibility”.
One aspect that should be central, because of its potential to democratise radio frequencies, but which is only marginally mentioned in the law, is that of digital frequencies.
In fact, these are already being introduced into the country before the establishment of clear policies and an adequate legal framework.
The new legal body does contemplate the need for an “equitable distribution of frequencies and signals made available through the digitalisation of radio and television systems”; and it also stipulates that “the number of new frequencies and signals of radio and television that result from the transition from analogue to digital technology will be administered by the State”.
However, the idea that this is a merely “technical” question still prevails. Therefore, it has been left for the Telecomunications Law ― still being in prepared ― to deal with the issue.
One of the most polemical themes is the institutional framework. The new law creates a Council of Regulation and Development of Information and Communication.
Three years ago, three law bills were presented, one of which was formulated by the Communications Forum, with contributions from communication networks and social and indigenous organisations. But at that time, its central democratising theses had little support the assembly or in the government of Rafael Correa.
Later on, during the past 14 months, the law was paralysed due to a lack of a majority in the assembly. However, although most social organisations did not proactively mobilise for the law, nonetheless these theses gathered legitimacy in society.
It reached a point where even right-wing groups and the mainstream media do not now, as a rule, dare to openly question the fairness of equally distributing radio frequencies.
The adoption of the law is not the end of the process, but a starting point. There is already an opposition offensive underway nationally and internationally, by big business media, who refer to it as a “gag law”. There are possible legal challenges.
But true democratisation can only be achieved inasmuch as it is taken up by the citizenry, and in particular by grassroots groups, in exercising their right to be heard.
[Abridged from Alainet. Translated by Jordan Bishop.]