Corporate Media vs People’s Government
In Part 1, we discussed the corporate media’s interest in profitable disasters, before explaining how the Ecuadorian people have managed to throw off the yoke of the 1 Percent. In Part 2, we’re going to break down Ecuadorian people government’s ongoing battle with the corporate media in its own country and in the United States, as well as drawing some lessons from Ecuador’s efforts to change the media.
When Ecuador brought a people’s government to power in 2007, it became the ideal headquarters for ImportantCool. Yet all throughout the Ecuadorian government’s years of success in improving the basic standards of living of its people, it has been locked in a political battle with its own domestic and international corporate media. Ecuador’s recent history shows us not only why we need to change the media, but some of the ways that we can do it.
As we recounted in Part 1, massive indigenous mobilizations and a financial crisis created a collapse of legitimacy for the political system dominated by “the Oligarchy”, as Latin Americans refer to the 1 Percent. The “Citizens’ Revolution” led by Rafael Correa, with the support of indigenous organizations and socialists, won the presidency as well as elections for the constituent assembly, through which the 2008 constitution was drafted. Thus Ecuador’s revolution was born.
From the revolution’s formative years to the present day, Ecuador’s corporate media has fought a rear-guard action in defence of the old system. When Rafael Correa first ran for the presidency in 2006, the media backed his opponent, Álvaro Noboa. As owner of thousands of hectares of banana plantations and the richest man in the country, his presidential candidacy spoke volumes of the banana republic status Ecuador had yet to leave behind. Noboa’s opinions on various matters continue to be printed as news by the corporate press today, after eight years of revolutionary government.
Ecuador’s two biggest newspapers, El Comercio and El Universo, are hubs of right-wing analysis, debate, and strategy. These newspapers have been passed down since the days of the colonial elite, with El Comercio owned by the Mantilla family since 1906, and El Universo controlled by the Pérez family since 1922. These families are part of a class that literally owned the highland indigenous peoples as serfs.
The newspapers publish interviews and opinion columns debating who the best right-wing candidate to oust Correa might be. They quote reports on U.S.-led trade deals written by corporate think-tanks in Washington as though they were objective sources. They print photos of Correa on official visits to Russia or Belarus to stoke fear about the President’s supposedly dictatorial ambitions. When that fails, they simply refer to Correa as “the Dictator” rather than by his name.
[A picture is normally worth a thousand words, but it’s worth even more when you don’t have any better arguments – President Rafael Correa of Ecuador looking ominous on a visit to Moscow in 2009.]
Correa’s success in such hostile circumstances is partly thanks to decades of popular organizing by unions, farmers, and African-descended and indigenous communities. These groups have experienced such a long and blatant history of exploitation that they rarely err by voting for the candidate of the rich and powerful.
Undoubtedly though, it has also depended on the idiosyncrasies of Correa himself. His personal charisma and his lifetime of academic expertise in political economy make him both likeable and formidable in public debate. Correa’s approval rating has hovered around 80 percent consistently, the highest of any leader in South America.
So the question remains, when Correa goes, will Ecuador fall back into the hands of the 1 Percent and revert to a banana republic? Is long-term change possible if the media stays the same?
The Media and Socialism for the 21st Century
Since the revolution, Ecuador has enacted numerous reforms in an attempt to block the corporate media from acting against the interests of the people. This has predictably intensified the media’s hostility against the government.
In Ecuador, cross-ownership between media and non-media companies is now illegal. Likewise, banks and insurance companies cannot own shares or share directors with non-finance sector companies. It is considered a conflict of interest.
The provision is designed to prevent unprofitable media from being subsidized by business interests in order to further those businesses’ political interests. Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian is one example of a revenue-negative newspaper and it has relentlessly obstructed action on global warming. Coincidentally, Murdoch has interests in oil and fracking [see Artefact on Murdoch’s bias].
This constitutional prohibition of simultaneous ownership of both banks and media was one of the hardest-fought changes of Ecuador’s revolution. The constitution states the following:
Financial entities or groups may not own permanent, total, or partial stakes in companies operating outside financial activity. The involvement in the control of the capital, investment, or heritage of communications media is prohibited to financial entities or groups [Article 312].
On 12 August, 2010, two months before the end of the cross-ownership provision’s two-year grace period, Ecuador’s banking council announced it would not comply. The issue was forced at a referendum in January 2011, in which voters supported stripping bankers of shareholdings in media.
Ecuador’s largest bank, Banco de Pichincha, subsequently sold the major TV channel Teleamazonas. Another bank, Banco del Austro, sold the TV channel Telerama, while shareholders linked to four different banks sold their interest in Quito newspaper Hoy.
If such laws were implemented in the English-speaking world, the ownership structures of the vast majority of the media would be considered illegal and a conflict of interest. Billions of dollars in media stock would have to be divested in order to make the mass media independent.
The Ecuadorian government also stopped media from registering in tax havens. In 2009 the government announced that they would no longer contract advertising with any company that did so. This forced the three largest newspapers in the country, El Universo, El Comercio, and La Hora, to relocate shareholdings from the Bahamas and the Cayman and Virgin Islands.
These measures typify the revolutionary government’s attitude of getting directly involved in solving the problems of society. In the Anglophone world we are told that such reforms are impossible: that these things are the domain of business, which is hierarchical and acts for profit, and not government, which is democratic and acts in the public interest.
The 2013 Media Law and the U.S. Corporate Media Campaign against Correa
Ecuador’s 2013 Media Law introduced even more provisions to democratize the media and sent corporate media in both Ecuador and the U.S. into a frenzy. With Ecuador now protecting Julian Assange and seemingly on the verge of granting asylum to Edward Snowden at the time, the new law was strategically portrayed as an assault on free media, supposedly revealing Correa’s hypocrisy in supporting the two media revolutionaries. As we’ve seen, Correa’s primary “assault” on the media has been to skewer their tax avoidance schemes and to attempt to stop them from being a mouthpiece for banks.
Yet what could be more ironic than a concerted media campaign against an official enemy – with each outlet twisting the facts, ignoring alternative viewpoints and pushing the same message – that accused that enemy of media propaganda and suppression of free speech? With its repetitive, synchronized campaign, the U.S. corporate media was putting on its own propaganda master class, a perfect demonstration of the dysfunctional nature of unregulated and supposedly “free” media in the context of obscene economic inequality.
Time Magazine described Correa’s record on free speech as “as poor as that of Russian President Vladimir Putin.” The Washington Post called Correa an “autocratic leader…known for prosecution of his own country’s journalists.” And the less said about the context-free quotation practices at The Miami Herald the better.
The Atlantic topped the lot by publishing a piece from the Journal of Democracy that decried the “soft authoritarianism” and the “electoral façade” in Ecuador and other leftist Latin American states. How devious of these leaders to be repeatedly voted in amidst a complete absence of political coercion or violence!
The Atlantic failed to mention that the Journal of Democracy is an official publication of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which receives funds from the U.S. congress to support opposition political activities in left-wing countries, including Ecuador. As Allen Weinstein, one of the founders of the NED, said, “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.” In other words, the corporate media campaign was literally repeating U.S. government propaganda.
Unsurprisingly then, the piece in The Atlantic exclusively criticized Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, while praising Mexico and Colombia as “safely consolidated” democracies. These two countries, U.S. allies which receive hundreds of millions of dollars in military and police aid,[are a clusterfuck of human rights abuses. Journalists are routinely murdered, rather than very occasionally charged with libel as in Ecuador.
For an in-depth exposé of one case of hack coverage of Ecuador by Associated Press and The New York Times, see William K. Black’s piece “What is the U.S. Media up to?”
So what did the Ecuadorian media law put forward to provoke such irrational hostility? In its preamble, it recognizes the value and historical and political importance of freedom of expression, “while complementing that with what it has always lacked: a series of opportunities and services such that this freedom is truly within the reach of all, rather than being the privilege of those best positioned in society.”
The law could be speaking directly to us in the Anglophone world. In Australia, Murdoch alone controls almost two-thirds of the newspaper market in the capital cities. In the United Kingdom, the tabloids are so powerful that politicians regularly meet with their owners to discuss their government’s next steps. In the U.S., concentration of ownership is such that six corporations control 90 percent of all media, including magazines and cinema. And of course, it is the 1 Percent’s investment trusts that own these media conglomerates along with the rest of corporate America.
The centrepiece of the new Ecuadorian law, which made it such a dangerous precedent for the 1 Percent, is the provision to reduce corporate media to one-third of the market. Government media will make up another third and community non-profit media will make up the final third.
There are also strict rules against concentration of media ownership. In Ecuador, “[a] single legal or natural person may control no more than a single AM radio frequency, a single FM radio frequency, and a single television frequency.”
These laws counter the perversion of media in grossly unequal societies. As Rafael Correa himself argued, “Since the printing press was invented, freedom of the press has depended on the will of those who own one.”
The media law also prohibits what it calls “media lynching” and partisan election coverage. While difficult to prove in practice, such a provision would have been very welcome in Australia during the 2013 federal elections. Murdoch’s Sydney tabloid The Daily Telegraph kicked off its election coverage with its characteristic standards of impartiality and objectivity:
[Murdoch’s taking this all the way to the Prime Minister. Eh! Mister Prime Minister?! … Andy?!]
ImportantCool and Ecuador
So there were a number of reasons for ImportantCool to choose Ecuador as its home base. ImportantCool is designed to be an independent and radically transparent organization, and likewise Ecuador is struggling to make media independent. Ecuador is aligned with our contention, “Change the Media, Change the World.”
In the 2013 Media Law, censorship of content with the intent of favouring or damaging third parties is prohibited, not just to public authorities but also to any “shareholder, associate, presenter, or any other person” [see Article 18].
The law mirrors IC rules to prevent censorship against individual journalists in the cooperative. Our editors can only insist on changes due to factual errors or unsubstantiated claims. Plus our “no one-night stands” policy means that IC editors cannot filter freelance submissions based on personal ideology.
For ImportantCool, one of the most important reasons for incorporating in Ecuador was to dodge defamation suits in the Western world. These suits, which Noam Chomsky famously described as “legal flak”, can be brought by the rich and powerful against independent media that threaten their interests. Even if the facts are on our side as journalists, the money required to defend such suits can be crippling to independent organizations.
In Ecuador, defamation is a criminal offence. While this seems dangerous at first sight, it also means that a publication has to be judged to be defamatory beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden of proof is not as strict when defamation is brought as a civil rather than criminal suit, as in countries like the U.K.
This approach to libel has its roots in the Ecuadorian constitution, which states that the Ecuadorian people have the right to receive “truthful” and “verified” information. The U.S. media expects us to consider this a totalitarian, communist plot, while ignoring what goes on in its own backyard.
The White House is currently engaged in a legal battle to make lying in political campaigns “an especially protected form of speech.” Obama wants the Supreme Court to overrule the Ohio state legislature’s decision to prohibit lying in political campaigns (and campaign ads!).
As was unsurprising for a law against lying, the U.S. and Ecuadorian corporate media slammed the Ecuadorian government’s proposal. What was somewhat surprising was to see Human Rights Watch (HRW) join in, claiming that “the government” would have the right to judge what is and is not “truthful”, thereby amounting to “censorship”. HRW made no mention of the harm caused by mass media lies.
In reality, the Ecuadorian law would be overseen by multiple levels of government via the Council for the Regulation and Development of Information and Communication. The council is made up of representatives from the executive, the legislature, the provincial governments, and the highly-critical Council for Citizens’ Participation. Its advisory committee includes cultural organizations, public media figures, video producers, and university faculty members and student representatives in journalism and media [see Articles 48 and 52].
Of course at ImportantCool, we’d be happiest to keep the government out of the matter altogether by raising the standards expected of the media. Truthful and verified information is a basic part of our commitment to our readers. All our source material can be viewed in the IC Artefacts Cave, so that you know we will always tell the story like it is. We’re going further than any other news organization in fulfilling Julian Assange’s dream that a news archive like Wikileaks could usher in a new age of evidence-based “scientific journalism”.
Setting up headquarters in Ecuador also means that many less trips through London’s Heathrow Airport, and consequently that much less risk of being detained without charge under Schedule 7 of the U.K.’s Terrorism Act, as happened to David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald’s partner. One can only assume he was never read his Miranda rights (pause for laughter: 1, 2, 3 …)
It also means that much less time spent in the U.S., where even journalists from mainstream outlets like Fox News, Associated Press, The Washington Post, and The New York Times have been spied on in an unprecedented persecution of whistleblowers.
“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing” — Malcolm X
Yes, the world needs to change, but more importantly than that, we need to change. That’s right, us: you, me, and the rest of the English-speaking world. America, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have been busted spying on the entire world. We’ve been the biggest warmongers of the past 50 years, responsible for the deaths of millions of people in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. When we’re not on the ground firing the guns ourselves, we’re handing out weapons to brutal governments like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Colombia, and Mexico.
We own a good part of the world’s largest oil companies and coal mines and we’ve been the most recalcitrant on taking action to stop global warming. Of the more than 180 nations in the U.N. General Assembly, we’re completely isolated on numerous issues: we’ve rejected the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and we’ve supported the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
We’re some of the wealthiest people on the planet and yet we act like we can do nothing. We haven’t seriously challenged our governments since the 1970s. Since then, South Americans have ended dictatorships and South Africans have ended apartheid. All we’ve done is watch as our countries become more unequal and our governments erode our rights.
We have to change the world, but we cannot change it based on what the corporate media tell us. If we try, we’ll end up joining causes like support for “the continuation of the revolution” in Egypt which allowed a brutal military dictatorship to overthrow Egypt’s first democratically elected president. From the most conservative all the way to The Guardian, the Anglophone media cheered the military’s coup d’état.
Or we’ll end up cheering for a tiny elite protesting in Venezuela, based on daily reports in all the U.S. media. Meanwhile, we’ll do nothing in solidarity with a genuine popular uprising right next door in Colombia, because the corporate media won’t even let us know that it happened.
To change the world, we have to change the media. ImportantCool is here to change the media. The rest is up to you.