Bogus Media-Generated "Scandal" Undermines Democracy in Ecuador

This article originally appeared in The Guardian's Comment is Free.

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 Corrrea 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.

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