Those of us who followed the melodrama of Edward Snowden’s botched attempt to make his way from Hong Kong to Latin America this summer will recall the media fallout that followed revelations that Ecuador had granted the American whistleblower asylum. The murky details surrounding the asylum grant are now irrelevant now that Snowden has instead accepted asylum in Russia. The media has, as a result, turned its attention away from Ecuador, at least for as long as Snowden remains in Russia. But for the weeks through which the South American nation looked set to be his final destination, the mainstream Western media took aim at its press freedom record, pointing out the “irony” in a supposed defender of transparency taking shelter in an apparent enemy of the free press – the same “irony” they had pointed out when Julian Assange took refuge in its London embassy.
This supposed “irony” not only ignores the far worse human rights record of the United States and many of its allies but is also based on a hugely distorted picture of Ecuador, along with its allies Venezuela and Bolivia, that the mainstream Western media has been painting for years. As an open letter signed by 28 Latin American experts observed, the media consistently fails to see any irony of the numerous individuals who have taken refuge in the United States despite its well-known use of torture in its prison at Guantanamo and its widespread use of drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries. It furthermore fails to recognize that the purpose of a whistleblower such as Snowden seeking asylum in a foreign country, rather than to endorse its press freedom, is to seek protection from persecution in his or her own country.
A recent piece of Ecuadorian legislation that has generated the bulk of the criticism from the Western media has allocated a third of media frequencies to private broadcasters, a third to government broadcasters and a third to community broadcasters. It also prohibits “media lynching”, a “concerted effort (…) repeatedly broadcast (…) for the the purpose of discrediting persons or organizations or reducing their public credibility”.
These provisions reek of authoritarianism to our libertarian-trained ears. We in what they call the Western world have repeatedly been told throughout our lives of the importance of a free and independent media and of the dangers of censorship. We are accustomed to believe that only governments can infringe upon our freedoms, and that freedom from government is freedom per se. Yet it is in an environment such as Ecuador’s media scene where this line of thinking falls short. An assessment by Unesco’s International Program for the Development of Communication (IPDC) found that 83% of channels were privately owned, 17% publicly owned and none were community owned. Ecuador’s private media is also notoriously relentless in its anti-government stance, drawing comparisons to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. It is in such an environment where we must consider the meaning of a “free press”.
First of all, who holds the power to control the media? For most of us, the first answer that comes to mind is governments. We have all read stories of journalists and reporters in various far-out countries being arrested, detained and tortured for their coverage of stories that clearly disturb their governments. We do not, however, see the self-censorship that takes place behind the scenes with journalists and editors well aware of the political and ideological views of their employers. As a result, we simply do not perceive the corporate censorship of private media – or any other form of censorship by media owners – as a threat to press freedom.
Secondly, what is the ultimate purpose of the media? As our primary sources of information, we expect the media to be truthful and objective, and as such, many of us acknowledge the importance of not only accuracy and impartiality but also plurality. It is in our interests to be informed by a wide range of sources representing varying perspectives and often covering separate issues, from which we can then extract the truth. Even despite its criticisms of the new media law, Reporters Without Borders – which, bear in mind, has taken indirect funding from the United States government – describes the broadcast frequency redistribution as “a powerful lever for media pluralism”. It adds that “the provisions governing nationally-produced broadcasting content are broadly similar to those in force in most other countries”.
This is not to say the new media law, particularly the rather arbitrary provision on “media lynching”, will not be open to government abuse. It is, however, clear that its criticism by the mainstream Western media has been completely over the top and is not only based on a fundamentalist idea of press freedom that rejects all forms of government intervention but also largely politically motivated. The United States media’s united condemnation of the law – and its quickness to shift its focus to Russia as soon as it surfaced that Snowden would not be heading to Ecuador – in fact demonstrates the need of greater media plurality in the United States. It has effectively become the mouthpiece of the American government, both politically in groundlessly smearing Ecuador for granting Snowden asylum and ideologically in attempting to justify its smear campaign by espousing an entirely fundamentalist view of press freedom.