Focus On PSM: Second time lucky for public media in Ecuador?

1 September 2021

A year after it was dismantled, public media is being considered again in Ecuador. But can the country move past its history of media repression to establish a resilient and independent public media system?

In June 2021, the Secretary General of Communication of the Presidency, Eduardo Bonilla revealed that a Public Media Law is being considered, in collaboration with UNESCO. According to Bonilla, the law would not only apply “good communication practices with international references”, but would also “set the precedent for guaranteed freedom of communication”. The legal reforms were also set to place citizens as a focal point, with the responsibility to manage state-owned public media entities.

The preparation of a new Public Media Law comes just one year after public service media (PSM) was effectively dismantled in Ecuador. In early 2020, then-President of Ecuador, Lenín Moreno, announced that all PSM would be closed as part of economic measures to minimise public spending in response to the country’s economic crisis. By September, Public Media EP (EMP) was formally liquidated. At the time, EMP had only been established for four years and was made up of more than 20 media outlets, including seven seized private media that were incorporated into the public system by Moreno in 2017.

A transitory provision established that within three months of the September 2020 decree, the company’s assets would be divided and a structure proposed for its successor, which would house the remaining public media entities of Ecuador TV, Pública FM, and El Telégrafo digital. The new company, the Public Communication Company of Ecuador, would assume the liabilities, assets, and equity of EMP and would manage public broadcasting services, public television, and the digital version of El Telégrafo.

The liquidation of EMP received significant backlash, including from former Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Edison Lanza, who criticised the move and said it would impact on diversity and media pluralism.

“The public media of Ecuador required rationalisation and democratisation, but not that they be suppressed,” Lanza said.


However, in July 2021 Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso extended the liquidation of EMP by a year.

El Telégrafo reported that the new communication company would be overseen by a board of directors, led by the head of the General Secretariat of Communication of the Presidency or his permanent delegate, and would include the President of the Board of Directors of the Public Companies Coordinating Company (EMCO-EP) and the head of the national planning body, as a delegate of the Presidency of the Republic.

Today, the Public Communication Company is also responsible for managing the liquidation process of the seized media that were incorporated into the public media system. But the company has faced criticism for its delay in compensating former workers of the seized entities. There are more than 200 workers still awaiting compensation. However, Hernán Luque, Board President of the Public Companies Coordinating Company, said recently that the Public Communication Company did not have the funds to pay compensation.

“The company is a new company and does not have the resources to put the liquidation of the employees of the companies seized,” he said. However, the seized companies maintain that while the Public Communication Company has undergone several name changes – first from Ugemed, to EMCO, then Public Media Company, and finally its current name – it nonetheless receives the assets and liabilities from its previous iterations and must therefore maintain its responsibility to the workers.

OBSERVACOM notes that while the government aims to sell the seized media incorporated into the public system in 2017, legal restrictions have prevented immediate sale. As a result, a review of legal and administrative aspects of EMP is required.

Wider landscape

Meanwhile, the preparation of the Public Media Law comes amid calls for continued reform of the country’s Communication Law. Implemented in June 2013 by then-President Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian Communication Law was said to “democratise the media” by promoting a “good press” and strengthening freedom of expression. But the law was widely considered to be restrictive and a mechanism for authorities to censor and arbitrarily sanction independent media organisations. Introducing legal concepts such as prior censorship, the government was able to assert an element of control over newsrooms by penalising outlets for not providing news coverage of events and issues it deemed important.

As part of the law, a state-run communications regulator – Supercom – was introduced, with a responsibility to monitor media content and maintain compliance with the law by imposing hefty fines, demanding public apologies and corrections, and investigating media outlets and journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Supercom made regular use of its power to target critical journalism and, within four years of its creation, handled1,081 cases and issued 675 sanctions.

When Moreno became President, Supercom was sidelined in an attempt to improve media relations and critical journalism. Moreno also pledged to reform the highly repressive Communication Law. Supercom was subsequently shut down in late July 2019, following significant reforms to the law and a serious scandal whereby the regulator printed 300,000 pocket versions of the Communication Law with sanctions not established in the articles approved by the Legislature.

Read more: Keys to understanding the reforms to the Organic Law of Communication in Ecuador

Further reforms have taken place: in February 2021, text within the Communication Law was reformed on the grounds that it could contravene international human rights instruments related to freedom of expression. The regulation of digital platforms was also ruled out. But, noting that reforms made to the law were not enough, President Lasso presented the draft Organic Law on Free Expression and Communication to the National Assembly in May 2021, to replace the Communication Law. But there has since been pushback, with the community media sector expressing concern about the limit of the exclusive right to freedom of expression to just the media and journalists, rather than a right to all citizens.

In late August, a coalition of community media and assembly members from the Pachakutik party submitted a proposal for the law’s reform which included a call for direct allocation of frequencies for public media and for community media for the country’s indigenous population. The Ecuadorian Radio Broadcasting Association also presented proposed reforms to the law, which includes the recognition of the rights of citizens to participate in public, private, and community media and the repeal of article 30, which covers information with restricted circulation.

Header Image: Panorama of Quito capital of Ecuador. Credit: PatricioHidalgoP/iStock