"You criticize the president, and nothing happens to you. You mistreat your dog, and you go to jail. Very interesting country."

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is a polarizing figure—he brought political stability to a country that had cycled through eight leaders in just ten years, but his record on free speech remains spotty at best, which has not endeared him to PrezBo. Bwog Daily Editor and resident expert on 21st century socialism, Jed Bush, reports on a World Leaders Forum discussion of freedom of the press in Ecuador.

President Bollinger (an old hand at this free speech stuff) opened the event praising Correa as a popular social reformer, noting the marked increase in the standard of living in Ecuador as well as improvements to infrastructure during his presidency. He then went on the attack, calling into question the censorship of the Ecuadorian press and the many human rights complaints that have been lodged against Ecuador. Correa smiled and shrugged at the various plaudits and accusations thrown his way, but quickly fired back once he took the stage. “Mr. President Bollinger, you’re wrong,” Correa announced, denying the accusation that it is illegal in Ecuador for the media to criticize the government.

That key distinction between “opinion” and “lie” was a recurring theme in Correa’s speech, which argued that the media may have opposing views, but “lies” are not tolerated and should be punished with jail time. Citing the American Convention on Human Rights signed in San José, he noted that in Latin America, every citizen, public or private, is entitled to their dignity and honor. His infamous lawsuit against Ecuador’s largest newspaper for libel, he explained, was not about censorship of the press, but protecting the rights and dignity of public officials and the upholding of common law. He acknowledged that slander is not punished by jail time in the United States, but emphatically denounced the idea that the United States should set the moral compass for the world, garnering enthusiastic applause from the audience.

It is often difficult, Correa admitted, to discern the difference between opinions and lies. However, he rebuked the idea that the media should have total freedom to publish opinions the critical of the government, which he argued could destabilize the government and endanger the country. Lashing out at what he perceives as the hypocrisy of Western governments, he asked why there is outrage over Latin American governments’ censorship, while Germany’s ban on extremist right-wing parties is accepted as the status quo. He also vehemently disagreed with the notion that the media should act as a check on the government—because the media is not an entity, per se, but rather a small group of extremely wealthy individuals who lack any check on their power.

Correa used that tangent to delve into the economic aspect of the crossroads between democracy and the media, framing the often contentious relationship between government and press as one of class conflict and a lesson of the perils of uninhibited big business.  Information, Correa argues, is a public good, and, like any other public good, giving complete control of it to the private sector is usually dangerous and inefficient. In his eyes, the problem isn’t the existence of critical opinions of the government, but rather that only some peoples’ opinions are voiced. He was keen to remind the audience that the voices of the press were not the voice of the people, but merely those “wealthy enough to afford a printing press.” He related a story of how the largest bank in Ecuador, which owned countless businesses, numerous magazines, TV stations, telecommunications companies, etc., went bankrupt under allegations of fraud, and their owners fled to Miami. He added that the Ecuadorian government’s calls for their extradition have been ignored—further reinforcing Correa’s belief of Western hypocrisy when it comes to media accountability.

Ultimately, Correa hopes that as anti-trust laws begin to take shape in Ecuador, the voice of the media will become more representative of the people as a whole, not merely a mouthpiece for the elite. He also hopes that new “public media” sources will offer opposing views to those of the traditional media, offering a counter to the establishment media’s “lies.” In his speech, he emphasized that public media is not state-run media, but admitted that, and much like his earlier distinction between “lie” and “opinion,” the distinction was murky. He insisted, though, that the public media sources are crucial to fulfill the government’s function of maintaining an open press.

The speech came to a close as Correa painted a picture of Ecuador’s press against the backdrop of America’s own civil rights movement. “One of the most beautiful document written by human kind,” the Declaration of Independence, was drafted by a man who owned 200 slaves, he reminded the audience. In Latin America, he continued, only the elite have those freedoms, just as Thomas Jefferson did. Correa’s stated goal is to make sure those rights are brought to the masses. He has high hopes for the democratization of media in Ecuador, and only time will tell whether his efforts are legitimate attempts to give the people of Ecuador a voice of their own, or merely more tools for him to use in his crusade against Big Business in Ecuador.