(AFP) – Ecuador slashed the private sector’s share of radio and television frequencies Friday and restricted content, the culmination of a battle between the president and media he accuses of undermining him.
Leftist President Correa has long had tense relations with private news outlets and has come under fire from international rights groups.
Members of the leading opposition party, called Creo, attended Friday’s session wearing white handkerchiefs over their mouths, likening the law to a gag order.
“Life is nothing if you lose freedom,” read one of the signs they carried.
Correa’s party Alianza Pais ruling party, which holds an absolute majority of 100 out of 137 seats in Congress, was easily able to pass the bill despite criticism that it will tighten the state’s control over the media.
The law redistributes broadcast media frequencies and licenses, allotting 34 percent to community media and 33 percent to the public sector.
The private sector, which currently controls 85.5 percent of radio frequencies and 71 percent of television frequencies, will be confined to the remaining 33 percent.
“Goodbye to the monopoly on the media,” said Mauro Andino, the ruling party lawmaker who sponsored the bill.
It also requires Ecuadorian media to dedicate 50 percent of radio programming and 60 percent of television programming to locally-produced content.
The law establishes a regulatory body to restrict violent, sexual or discriminatory content and to sanction and fine violators.
Correa, a populist in the mold of the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, has long clashed with private media.
In July 2011 an Ecuadorian court sent four journalists from the daily El Universo to prison and imposed a $40 million fine for “defamatory libel” for running opinion articles criticizing Correa.
The ruling unleashed a storm of protests by rights groups and media watchdogs, with Human Rights Watch Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco denouncing what he called a “major setback for free speech in Ecuador.”
Correa later pardoned the journalists, but is still battling some media groups that he says are attempting to destabilize his government.
Ecuador has meanwhile granted asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been holed up at its London embassy for the last year in a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted on sex crime allegations.
Assange — who has portrayed his disclosure of a trove of leaked US documents as the act of a whistleblower intending to reveal official misdeeds — says he fears he will be handed over to the United States for prosecution.