QUITO, Ecuador, Jan. 30 (UPI) -- Oil-rich Ecuador, which won left-wing accolades for supporting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, is tightening controls on journalists in the country.
Critics see official muzzling of the press as a travesty, as the Australian leaker remains a guest of Ecuador's embassy in London, England, where he sought and received "diplomatic asylum" June 19, 2012.
President Rafael Correa says Ecuador's privately owned media are too critical of him and sees watchdog groups skeptical of his moves to regulate the press after his own fashion as stooges of capitalism.
The latest flap over the government's tumultuous relationship with Ecuador's media followed a government takeover of the Fundamedios, a non-government organization and advocacy group.
"Since President Rafael Correa took office in 2007, sweeping changes in laws, government policies, and new and proposed regulations have turned Ecuador into one of the region's most restrictive nations for the press," the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said.
In a joint report with Fundamedios and Pen International, the committee called on Correa to "end systematic campaigns to discredit critical journalists, including campaigns carried out by media outlets sympathetic to the government."
Reporters Without Borders criticized Correa's frequent recourse to "cadenas" -- government announcements that must be carried by all the broadcast media -- and "enlaces," presidential addresses that broadcast media are expected to carry and called the two together "a tool for directly confronting privately owned media that criticize his government."
Fundamedios Director Cesar Ricaurte called a news conference to display documents purporting to show how the government planned to control the NGO. The move is "another step forward in the government's campaign to harass and stigmatize," Ricaurte said.
He accused newspapers El Comercio, El Universo and La Hora parts of being information "mafias" responsive to Correa's administration.
Correa hasn't commented on the criticism of his press curbs, concentrating instead on disciplining doctors, whom he has threatened to replace with foreign -- most likely Cuban -- doctors.
The government's campaign to improve healthcare efficiency has riled the medical community, which sees plans to penalize doctors as counterproductive.
"We've talked with the ambassadors of various countries and we already have a group of specialists that will be coming to the country to lend their support," Health Minister Carina Vance said.
Ecuador's congress voted in June 2012 for a divisive new media law that tightened restrictions on newspapers and television stations. Opposition lawmakers called it a "gag law" and the Committee to Protect Journalists said it "puts into law a key goal of the Correa presidency -- muzzling all critics of his administration."
The government has extended controls to radio stations, television channels, newspapers and magazines, in moves reminiscent of curbs on Venezuelan media introduced by late President Hugo Chavez and upheld by his successor, President Nicolas Maduro.
Opposition lawmakers have cited similarities between Ecuador's moves against the press and controls introduced by Argentine President Cristina Fernandez.
The critics say Correa's curbs are ill-timed as they coincide with uncertainties in the oil market, Ecuador's mainstay. Ecuador and 11 other OPEC members face declining oil demand, industry data released this week said.