Rather than quietly submit to a libel ruling restricting press freedom, the Ecuadorian paper El Universo published a near blank front page last week. CNN reported that the white space filled all but the bottom of the paper, where the paper published an Ayn Rand quote that said, in part, "When you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice, you may know that your society is doomed."
The blank page followed a judge's decision to sentence editorial page editor Emilio Palacio to three years in jail for writing an editorial criticizing the president Rafael Correa. According to The Miami Herald, the offending article called Correa a dictator.
It was not the first time Correa reacted strongly against the press. He has called Ecuador's media "political actors who are trying to oppose the revolutionary government." His previous run-ins with the press includes a lawsuit against a director of daily La Hora for an article describing his actions as president as "shameful". He is also pursuing legal charges against two investigative journalists who revealed that the president's brother had gotten large contracts with the government.
In the face of these tight press restrictions, a blank page can speak loudest. Newspapers that impose censorship in such an obvious manner both attract reader attention and cleverly navigate a system in which they are penalized for speaking out. Censorship is a tricky issue to draw attention to because readers cannot physically see it. Publishing a blank page pushes the issue to the forefront of news. Journalists are denied press freedoms, and then in turn deny the public the news it expects.
Newspapers all over the world have used the 'black page' tactic. Earlier in March, six Estonian national dailies published a blank front page or a black page inside their newspaper to protest a proposed law that would punish journalists for protecting their sources. WAN-IFRA joined the newspapers in condemning the law.
Similarly, Hungary's newspaper organized a blank page protest last December due to a proposed law sanctioning "unbalanced coverage", according to BBC. The bill stipulated that Hungarian media outlets would have to fill at least half their programming with European productions and sanctioned breaches of rules on coverage of sex, violence, or alcohol. The law was passed despite the blank page protest and an online explanation of the proposal's dangers by Judit Bayer, a Hungarian journalist.
Italian newspapers took the concept even further last year, imposing a nearly-complete 24-hour news blackout protesting a proposed gagging law. The black-out was a radical approach to press freedom threats. Journalists feared the law would protect politicians, especially from scandal, by forbidding journalists to print transcripts of police-intercepted phone conversations. However, not everyone in media agreed that it would be the most effective strategy. Il Giornale, owned by Burlusconi's brother Paolo, continued to print through the blackout. The editor explained that while he disapproved of the gagging law, he believed that the media's pitfall would be to "put the gags on ourselves".
Whether blank pages are a "gag" or an asset is unclear. Some, such as the effort in Hungary, have failed to mobilize readers and change government policies. However, blank pages are an important means of drawing attention to an issue. When La Salle University dealt with an embarrassing story about a marketing professor inviting exotic dancers to an off campus symposium, the dean of students told the student newspaper that it was not allowed to run the story as a headliner. He instructed the student paper to run the story below the fold, a sanction students technically complied with by leaving the top half of the paper blank. In this context, the move is especially effective, as readers are not being deprived of a story. Instead, the half blank page brought deliberate attention to the article.
To commemorate World Press Freedom Day this year, WAN-IFRA sponsored a "White Space" initiative on May 3rd, in which some editors agreed to publish blank space on the front page of the paper to highlight the importance of a free press. However, the planned date of the initiative fell right after one of the biggest news stories of the year, Osama Bin Laden's death, and did not draw the attention it hoped.
Blank page protests are best used sparsely. Although they deprive the public of the news they depend on, when done right, they also draw attention to invisible issues. A constrained press cannot deliver unflattering stories to better inform voters, which is a crucial component of a functioning democracy. Ecuadorian papers should not bet that a 'blank page' tactic will overturn the unfavorable verdict, but in this case, it can make a statement louder than words.