Ecuador has a reputation in much of the western world as forward-thinking and leftist. Its constitution has been called ‘the most progressive in the world’. In line with this, Ecuador is also known to many as a supporter of free speech and anti-censorship. Since 2012 Ecuador has granted Wikileaks founder Julian Assange political asylum in their London embassy, and they offered to grant NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden political asylum in 2013. In response to the USA’s pressure on Ecuador to take back their offer of asylum for Snowden, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa offered to pay $23 million annually for human rights training in the US and expressed willingness to renounce the nation’s trade benefits with the superpower. The 2008 Constitution explicitly allows for free and open communication. Ecuador appears to take rights seriously.

As a popular leader and a chief architect of the socialist Citizens’ Revolution since 2008, Correa is often hailed as a champion of the left in South America alongside the late Venezuelan Hugo Chavez and incumbent Bolivian President Evo Morales. However, it is not so clear-cut. Whilst it is true that Correa and his party Alianza País have cut the financial dependency cord with the IMF, and have nationalized the oil and gas industries, there are also far reaching laws that threaten the label of ‘Revolution’.

The most prominent of these oppressive laws is the 2013 Communications Law. Passed by an overwhelming majority and with little public debate (so much for the democracy pillar of the Citizens’ Revolution) the law is essentially a gag law that allows for widespread press censorship. The law outlines ethical guidelines for journalism, which goes against all international standards of non-state imposed journalistic ethics, and disallows ‘media lynching’ such that the press is not allowed to print articles with the purpose of discrediting or harming anyone. Had this law existed in the UK during the MP expense scandal it would have been the press that came under fire and not the politicians.

Freedom House has rated Ecuador’s press freedom as ‘not free’ for two consecutive years now. This is no surprise given the consequences of this law. In January 2014 the government fined a city daily paper, El Universo, over a cartoon depicting a police raid on a journalist’s house, a journalist who was said to have information on corruption within the government. The cartoonist, Xavier Bonilla, also had to print a correction to undo the defamation against the police. This was the first major instance of the use of the law and highlights its potentially dangerous use. As Bonilla’s lawyer put it, ‘to demand fact-checking of a cartoon is like saying that jokes have to be told with bibliographical quotes’.

The Communications Law has been universally criticized including: Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and PEN International (who surprisingly do not have a centre in Ecuador). Unfortunately, this global backlash has done nothing to change the mind of Correa. The law only validated what Correa had been practising since he was re-elected in 2009, as seen with the imprisonment of journalist Emilio Palacio in 2011. Unsurprisingly, Palacio was imprisoned for criticizing the government. However, there is potential change on the horizon. Nationally, the law is being challenged by a lawsuit filed by around 60 politicians, judges and writers, which has been taken up by the Constitutional Court of Ecuador. It is a step in the right direction.

What are we supposed to make of a country with such stark contradictions?

On the one hand, Correa can be regarded as continuing a long tradition of authoritarianism in the country and region, with the façade of democracy in keeping with the zeitgeist. Socialism and authoritarianism have certainly gone hand in hand historically. On the other hand, perhaps the Citizens’ Revolution, like the regimes of Chavez and Morales, is quite simply messy, complicated and beyond simplified judgements of ‘good’ or ‘bad’. To play devil’s advocate, perhaps a little anti-government censorship is a small price to pay for political stability in a country that had no fewer than nine leaders from 1990 until Correa came to power in 2007.

The world’s opinion on Ecuador will surely be solidified in 2017 when Correa is due to step down from the presidency according to the two-term rule he introduced in the new constitution of 2008. It is not unheard of for leaders to be flexible with this provision. So far, it is not looking promising. Correa, in his weekly addresses to the nation after his party suffered defeats in the February municipal elections, said that he might have to reconsider the two-term limit, due to his duty to implement the Revolution. Whether he steps down gracefully or tries to change the constitution, as happened in Nicaragua earlier this year, will demonstrate just how seriously Ecuador takes its constitutional rights.

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