Democratic governance still faces great challenges in many countries within the Latin American region. Political institutions remain weak and governments change frequently. Ecuador is no exception: recently it has undergone a period of profound constitutional reform, the centrepiece of which is the country’s twentieth constitution. Along with this new constitution, president Rafael Correa has introduced new forms of direct democracy.
Democracy and the Media
A well balanced relationship between political society and the media can be productive when a society is asked to be more participatory within the democratic process. The media plays a crucial role, especially when it comes to civil participation in politics and the accountability of political actors, including government and parliament.
Engaging the media in raising awareness of Ecuador’s new constitution has proved to be a challenging but rewarding task for NIMD’s partner in Ecuador, Ágora Democrática (IDEA-NIMD), which started its work in 2006, the year that Rafael Correa was elected as President for the first time. During the Constitutional Assembly, Ágora supported a weekly radio programme, called ‘Ágora Constituyente’, which was broadcast directly from the Assembly.
With this initiative, Ágora created an alternative communication channel between politics and citizens. More recently, together with the same network of community radio stations (CORAPE), Ágora has used the power of the media to reach out to rural and remote communities and explain the constitutional reforms. This project, known as “The Constitution in Practice”, is partly supported by the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Ecuador’s New Constitution
With the approval of the new constitution in 2008, the citizens of Ecuador agreed to a more participatory form of democracy. In addition to the three usual state powers – Executive, Legislative and Judicial – a new institution was introduced: the Transparency and Social Control Body, in which citizens are able to participate directly. Members of the Body will be selected by way of a competition and will have the power to appoint and control other state authorities. The constitution also sets out a framework for civil participation at the local government level.
However, citizens remain largely unaware of the consequences of the new constitution and how the institutions will function in practice. Right after the Constitutional Assembly in 2008, Ágora Democrática, together with some local NGOs, organised a series of workshops to find out the expectations of civil society regarding the Assembly. According to Cristhian Parreño of Ágora Democrática, “one of the lessons learned was the lack of knowledge amongst Ecuadorians of the constitution, their rights and obligations. It was therefore proposed to carry out a public awareness campaign.”
This campaign was comprised of several elements, including a series of radio broadcasts and newspaper inserts explaining the rights and obligations of Ecuadorian citizens, and a number of decentralised workshops for journalists, civil society organisations, local politicians and citizens.
A total of twelve inserts were published and distributed with the El Comercio newspaper. The content of the twelve bulletins included explanations of Ecuadorians’ constitutional rights and responsibilities; of the State Functions; and of the meaning of ‘El Buen Vivir’, or ‘wellbeing’.
“In terms of content, Ecuador’s new constitution is probably one of the most advanced in South America. The challenge for the country was to build a culture of dialogue and consensus, and to create a constitution in which all sectors of society feel represented. This avoids the possibility that a future government will create its own constitution,” says Parreño.
The distribution of the bulletins covered the main cities of all 24 provinces, but bulletins were also delivered through CORAPE radio networks to small towns and communities in order to reach rural areas. The bulletins have also been used in the radio broadcasts and workshops as support material for the discussion because of their contents and working proposals.
The project focussed on rural areas because, according to Parreño, “we noticed that those sectors were the least informed and also the ones that suffer the most for not knowing their rights and obligations.”
Workshops for Citizens
After all twelve bulletins were distributed in September, the first series of workshops were held in late 2009 in nine different provinces. During the workshops, which were facilitated by CORAPE journalists, citizens had the opportunity to discuss issues raised by the constitution with experts and local politicians. In order to improve the dissemination of the workshops’ agreements and conclusions a radio program was held at the end of each one. The workshops included representatives from social organisations, local authorities, craftsmen, youth, migrants, professionals, teachers and students.
In 2010, four more workshops are planned, including one that has been organised in response to a request from an indigenous group, the Shuar, and which will be held in the province of Morona Santiago with Shuar communities. Some of these people have never left their communities and have never had their constitutional rights explained to them.
For Mario Villalobos, CORAPE’s news coordinator, who facilitated two of the workshops in 2009, the project was important, “because it ref lected an open and democratic discussion on the citizens’ views regarding their participation needs, the ways to accomplish it, and the public demands for political spaces to incorporate the new concepts of the constitution.”
Margarita Arias, a citizen who works for a migrants’ organisation, says it is important that the new constitution “is inclusive – that it guarantees the people’s human, participation, and migration rights.”
She continues by observing that “as a workshop participant, one of the best experiences was the open debates on participation issues, helping the participants to learn about their rights and the fact that these are a democratic tool. It was also valuable to build social networks between the participants and their social organisations.”
One of the results of the workshops is that civil society organisations have proposed various dialogues and discussion platforms, some of which may result in the institutionalisation of processes and platforms in the future. For example in Puyo, social organisations and the local radio station talked over the possibility of having a space where social and political actors could generate debates and meet on a regular basis.
Ágora has also had meetings with state organisations such as the Citizens Participation Council and the Ministry of Education, both of which have showed interest in generating spaces for dialogue where constitutional rights and obligations can be discussed. For example, the Citizens Participation Council has asked for Agora’s authorisation to place the PDFs of the bulletins on its web page.
Moreover, Ágora, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, is also planning to re-use the bulletins for a possible new project in 2010 in order to disseminate the content of the constitution among young people in specific regions. Finally, from 2010, CORAPE will continue the ‘Ágora Constituyente’ radio broadcasts without the financial support of Ágora Democática because of their added value for its political programming. This is one of the most concrete and visible results of the Ágora project.
While the public awareness campaign has been very successful, as Mario Villalobos points out, much work remains to be done. “I think people have a greater knowledge of the constitution, but there is still much to do in order to say that they “know enough”. Being a legal instrument, it contains many concepts that must be explained and understood. The approval and dissemination of the constitution is part of the work that has to be done in order to build a new society.”