Freedom Flagging in South America

Human rights advocates condemn Ecuadorian president’s assault on free speech

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa / AP

Human rights and press freedom advocates are sounding the alarm on an effort by Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to undermine an international watchdog charged with ensuring freedom of the press.

Correa, who has a history of attempting to restrict freedom of the press, is expected to offer proposals at Friday’s meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, D.C., to financially and operationally weaken the body’s Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression.

The effort is part of an ongoing campaign by Correa to undermine the office, which in 2011 faulted his administration for using libel laws to silence its critics in the country’s news media.

The rapporteur is "the door that journalists from the Americas knock on when their freedom is in jeopardy," according to the Colombian news magazine Semana.

Correa’s proposal would increase OAS member states’ influence over the rapporteur’s operations, prohibit it from seeking independent funding, and prevent the office from releasing annual reports on press freedom in the region.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an international non-governmental organization (NGO), said the proposal "could seriously damage the significant work performed by the special rapporteur" and called on OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza to "publicly denounc[e] any attempts by member states aimed at weakening" the office.

Correa is widely seen as the successor to the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as the leader of Latin America’s Bolivarian socialist bloc. Other member states, including Venezuela and Nicaragua, have backed Correa’s attempt to weaken OAS’ press rapporteur.

Like Chavez and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, Correa has cracked down on journalists and news organizations that criticize the government, according to international observers.

"Freedom of expression continues to be severely threatened in Ecuador," according to Daniel Calingaert, vice president of policy and external affairs at Freedom House, an NGO that ranks countries according to their respect for political and civil freedoms.

The Ecuadorian government forced the closure of at least 17 broadcast media outlets in 2012 alone.

The year before, a CPJ report said Correa had "turned Ecuador into one of the hemisphere’s most restrictive nations for the press." Correa’s "aggressively adversarial stance against news media … threatens the internationally guaranteed free expression rights of all of his citizens," the report found.

Those offenses earned Correa rebukes from CPJ and other press freedom advocates.

"It is past time for this type of harassment and intimidation to stop in Ecuador and anywhere else where reporters face jail—or worse—for merely doing their jobs," said Mark Hamrick, an Associated Press reporter and the president of the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

In light of Correa’s press crackdowns, observers are keeping a close eye on Friday’s OAS meeting, and urging member states to reject any attempt to undermine the rapporteur’s office.

"The Special Rapporteur is indispensable to ensuring that the rights of free speech and free expression are protected throughout the Western Hemisphere," said Alison Bethel McKenzie, executive director of the International Press Institute.

"We urge OAS member states to carefully consider the implications of these recommendations," she said.

Some have also warned that the increasing influence of Bolivarian socialist leaders in the operation of the OAS could render the organization ineffectual in combating even blatant human rights abuses in the region.

"Weakening human rights observance can debilitate other functions such as election monitoring, or reporting on adherence to inter-American conventions," said Stephen Johnson, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Unless there is push back from serious Latin American countries the OAS is headed the way of the dodo and will have increasingly less impact in the region that should on paper be a bastion of democracy and individual rights," said Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst Ray Walser.

Correa has derided OAS’s focus on what he calls "the Anglo-Saxon vision of human rights."