By Eduardo Garcia
QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuador's Congress on Friday passed a law creating a state watchdog to regulate newspaper and television content, a move critics called a blow to free speech but the government hailed as a step toward more balanced media.
The law represents a victory for socialist President Rafael Correa's in his six-year battle with the country's media during which he has sued several media outlets for libel and insulted reporters with epithets such as "wild beasts" and "rabid dogs."
Opposition lawmakers, who wore gags during the debate, say the law will allow the government to control media through loosely defined regulations that require information be accurate and balanced.
Government officials, however, said it will make communications more democratic.
"This law is a milestone that separates the before and after in the history of communication and access to information by all Ecuadoreans," Political Management Minister Betty Tola told reporters.
Several rights groups including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International have expressed concern that the Correa government might be trampling on freedom of expression.
"One of this law's main flaws is the creation of a new mechanism for regulating the traditional media and their websites. Another is its attempt to influence how the profession of journalism is defined and practiced," Reporters Without Borders said on Friday.
The law calls for the creation of a watchdog that can impose fines and force media outlets to issue public apologies if it concludes that they defamed people or that the information published could prompt a "violent" reaction from an audience.
The law also calls for a redistribution of broadcast frequencies and reserves 33 percent of frequencies for state media, 33 percent for privately owned broadcasters and 34 percent for indigenous groups. But it will not take away existing concessions to radio and TV networks.
"Such an allocation constitutes a powerful lever for media pluralism," said Reporters Without Borders.
The law enshrines some universal media rights, including the right to withhold the name of a source, and prohibits public officials from censoring media outlets.
Lawmakers had been discussing the media law on-and-off for four years, but the ruling Alianza Pais party won almost three-fourths of seats in Congress in February, and now it can pass laws without having to negotiate with the opposition.
Correa's government has launched TV and radio networks, as well as a news agency to counteract privately owned media. He also filed charges against journalists and newspaper owners for libeling him, although he pardoned the defendants after they were sentenced to jail or to pay hefty damages.
After taking office in 2007 Correa ushered in a period of political stability. His government has not faced the kind of widespread social protests that forced three presidents to step down in the decade before he took office.
High state spending on infrastructure and social projects propelled the U.S.-trained economist to a sweeping re-election victory in February.
But Correa, 50, has been criticized for his strong-arm governing style. He has quarreled with foreign oil investors, local banks, telecommunications companies, the U.S. government and the Catholic Church.
(Additional reporting by Alexandra Valencia and Patricio Vivas; editing by Jackie Frank)