Media-Generated “Scandal” Undermines Democracy in Ecuador

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This column was published on July 26, 2007 by the
In his recent book, The Assault on Reason, former Vice-
President Al Gore describes how “the potential for manipulating
mass opinions and feelings initially discovered by
commercial advertisers is now being even more aggressively
exploited by a new generation of media Machiavellis.”
The concentration of broadcast media ownership is indeed
a real threat to democracy, as we learned the hard way
when more than 70 percent of Americans were convinced,
falsely, that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attacks of
September 11—thus enabling the launch of a disastrous
and unnecessary war in Iraq. The problem is even worse in
Latin America, where monopolized TV media is a much
larger share of the news that people receive, and is even
more shamelessly manipulated for political purposes. In
Ecuador, President Rafael Correa, an economist with a
Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, was elected last
November with a broad mandate for economic reform,
pro-growth development policies, and poverty alleviation.
One of his government’s first acts was to double the monthly
stipend for single mothers, the disabled and elderly that
are poor. Although Correa ran without a political party or
candidates for the Congress, his mandate was strongly reinforced
when the government won a referendum to draw up
a new constitution by an even larger margin of 82% percent.
As in a number of other countries in the region,
which has seen a record economic failure over the last 25
years, voters endorsed the sweeping institutional and political
changes they saw as necessary to enfranchise the
majority. But on May 21 the opposition TV media launched
an assault on President Correa’s finance minister, Ricardo
Patiño. In a seven minute grainy video clip from a hidden
camera, they showed the minister meeting on February 12
with two representatives of a New York investment firm, as
well as a former finance minister. Patiño talks about “scaring
the markets,” in what looks like a plot to manipulate
the country’s bond market. The clip, taken out of context,
was shown repeatedly for days on the TV news, spliced
with gratuitous, unrelated images of faceless people counting
large amounts of cash. It turns out that the video was
authorized by Patiño himself, an odd thing to do if one is
meeting to plan a crime. Patiño claims that the purpose of
the meeting and the taping of it was to investigate corruption.
And indeed the rest of the video—not shown on TV
but presented in a transcript published in Ecuador’s major
newspapers—supports his explanation. In the rest of the
meeting, Patiño is probing for information on corrupt
activities—including past market manipulations. He allows the others to present and explain the possibilities
in detail, never agreeing to go along
with anything—just as one would expect in
an investigation of this sort. In fact he states
that it would be wrong to manipulate the
market. The meeting ends with one of the
investors stating that nothing would be
done regarding the current debt payment—
which was due three days after the videotaped
meeting—but that they could think
about what to do in the future. But the TV
media’s repeated, propagandistic images—
playing on people’s cynicism from decades
of corrupt government—had the most
influence. This emboldened the opposition
to make more wild allegations of secret
deals with foreign banks, and vote to censure
Patiño in the Congress—which they
control. All of this has been done without
anyone presenting evidence that the finance
minister was involved in any wrongdoing.
If all this seems Orwellian, it is. Ecuador
currently has the most honest government
it has ever had—that is why it has had so
much support from the beginning. Yet the
impression that is coming across in the
media—both Ecuadorian and now spilling
over into the international press—is one of
corruption. Correa remains immensely
popular, and he has defended Patiño, who
has now taken another cabinet position.
The government will survive this assault,
and move forward with its agenda. But the
opposition, led by the traditional elite and
corrupt politicians, will use this “scandal”—
with the help of the media—to
undermine the government and the
reforms that the voters have chosen.
Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the
Center for Economic and Policy Research,
in Washington, D.C. (

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