World

'It's Worse to be a Journalist Than a Criminal Here': WikiLeaks Founder's Bid for Asylum Highlights Ecuador's Crackdown on Press Freedom

Some believe President Correa is using Julian Assange’s celebrity to distract from criticism that he has restricted freedom of expression in Ecuador.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Photo Credit: Espen Moe/Flickr

Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange are both victims of “lies and misinformation,” according to the Latin American leader. Correa, who last month granted political asylum to Assange on the basis that he faces persecution by the US following the publication of thousands of diplomatic cables, angrily denies accusations of hypocrisy from those who say he silences critics in his own country.

Ecuador’s decision to protect Assange, and its possible motives for doing so, have sparked debate around the world about freedom of the press and the Ecuadorian government's own repression of the media.

President Correa says the Latin American press is corrupt and cannot be treated like the media in North America or the UK. “Don’t let yourself be fooled by what’s going on,” he warned a group of foreign journalists at a press conference on August 20. “There is this image of the media as being about Woodward and Bernstein and the struggle for freedom of expression, but that’s not the case here. The press in Latin America is totally corrupt.”

By granting asylum to Assange, Ecuador is “confronting injustice,” according to the president, and waging what he sees as a war against imperialist powers. In an April interview with Assange, Correa welcomed the Australian hacker to the “club of the persecuted.”

Assange took refuge inside London’s Ecuadorian embassy on June 19 when he requested asylum from the Latin American nation to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is currently wanted for questioning on sexual assault and rape allegations.

For Assange and his many supporters, including Correa, the accusations are merely a ploy for Sweden to extradite him to the US, where he could face more severe charges for his role in WikiLeaks, although the US has made no formal extradition request.

The US has remained consistent in its public position that the asylum is an issue for the UK, Sweden and Ecuador, reiterating that Assange faces no persecution in America. However, recently obtained documents show that Australian diplomats believe the US will pursue Assange, who could be plausibly charged with espionage, conspiracy, computer fraud and unlawful access to classified information. The Australian embassy in Washington has reportedly been monitoring the US’ investigation against Assange, which has allegedly been going on for more than 18 months.

Many believe Correa is using Assange’s celebrity as a high-profile champion for freedom of information to boost his popularity for next February’s elections, with hopes to win a third consecutive term--and to distract from increasing international criticism that he has severely restricted freedom of expression in Ecuador.

“This is a good move politically for Ecuador—because Assange represents not only freedom of expression, but someone who stands up to America and Correa is using him to hurt the US, but it’s not about press freedom,” says Janet Hinostroza, a prominent Ecuadorian television presenter and journalist.

Reporters Without Borders claims press freedom in the country has receded significantly under Correa. According to its own numbers, the Ecuadorian government has shut down 14 media outlets since the beginning of the year. In most of these closures the government claimed the channels violated licensing or labor laws and owed minimal fines.

Vanguardia, an investigative news magazine that is known for exposing government corruption, was raided just last month, days before Ecuador formally granted asylum to Assange. Riot police in the capital city Quito stormed its offices, seized its computers and banned publication for a week on the grounds that it had failed to fulfill a quota for disabled employees, allegations the publication staunchly denies. When asked if this treatment seemed fair, President Correa responded, “Yes.”

In 2011, Ecuadorian press freedom organization Fundamedios reported 151 cases of acts of violence against journalists, 50 more than were recorded in 2010. Many think the actions are perpetrated by the government, but it's often hard to prove and judges have not found any specific government employees guilty.

“The government is clearly inciting violence against journalists,” Juan Carlos Calderon, editor of Vanguardia said in an interview earlier in August. “And there is a fear of being sued by the government. Bear in mind that the government totally controls the judiciary. Correa uses the courts like a whip. Many media have decided to just survive, and are not doing investigative journalism.”

Janet Hinostroza says that part of the problem lies with Correa’s attacks on the press during his weekly address to the nation carried by most channels, in which he has been known to go so far as to hold up photographs of journalists known to oppose him. “They show our faces as if we were the country’s most wanted,” she says.

Earlier in 2012, an Ecuadorian court sentenced three newspaper executives and a columnist to three years in prison and ordered them to pay around $41 million for defamation, although the convictions were subsequently revoked.

On August 16, the Ecuadorian government’s acceptance of opposition was again called into question when two unknown men on motorbikes attacked Orlando Gomez, a Quito-based Colombian journalist whose publication had put out an article the previous day outlining the Correa administration’s most recent assaults on press freedom.

“Assange asking Ecuador for asylum under the guise of freedom of expression is like me asking asylum from Iran to protect my rights as a woman,” Hinostroza asserted.

Since coming to power Correa has put many laws in place intended to curb private and opposition media, particularly aiming to cut their investment. One such law prohibits anyone who owns 6 percent or more of a media outlet from having outside economic interests, while another has banned any state advertisement in private media, which had historically been a strong source of revenue for stations. Another law recently enacted prevents electoral coverage directly promoting or in opposition of a candidate, party or political philosophy. Ecuador’s congress is currently deciding on a bill that would establish a committee that would control new outlet’s editorial content.

“Correa may have thought that defending Assange would neutralize criticisms of how he has restricted and censored media,” US analyst James Bosworth says. “Instead, the attention brought by this case has increased the coverage of Correa's hypocrisy on the issue. Correa has been attacking Ecuadoran media for five years and this is the local journalists' opportunity to gain international attention to the threats against them.”

Not all journalists feel threatened or censored, however. Maria Fernanda Torres, a journalist for Ecuador's El Tiempo newspaper, says she feels no pressure carrying out her work and that the current administration has been justified in its treatment of media. "If journalists break the law they face sanctions, but that's the same in every country,” she said.

Carlos A Rojas, political editor of El Comercio, believes that the move to grant asylum has been beneficial to Ecuador’s image, claiming it has “earned a place of respect in the international context... It should be shown that the local and global criticism against him on the deteriorating human rights as free speech or protest is unfounded.” 

Correa has said that the majority of the radio stations were closed for failing to comply with broadcasting laws. He denied any political impetus, noting that many of the stations were music channels.

Many within the administration and its supporters say that the Ecuadorian president is merely diversifying media coverage in the country, noting that since Correa took office, there has been a proliferation of public media organizations. When he came to power in 2007, a powerful few controlled a host of private outlets and there was only one public channel, Radio Nacional. The Ecuadorian government now owns three of the country’s six national television stations.

By granting Assange asylum, Correa also stands to further both his domestic and global political ambitions. “The priority for President Rafael Correa is domestic politics and gaining good points in the polls, especially with an election so close,” said Rojas. “Speaking about national dignity and that the country is no longer a colony of any empire can replenish the pride of many citizens.”

Correa’s popularity rose to 54 percent this month, up from 50 percent in July. The leaked WikiLeaks cables revealed him to be the most popular president in the country’s history.

However, many think Correa offered the asylum in order to position himself to take the reins as leader of Latin America’s left from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. “With Hugo Chávez sick from cancer, Correa may also be looking to become the new vigorous leader of ALBA [Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America],” asserts political commentator Gonzalo Escribano.

“He is trying to convert himself into the anti-American leader in the world,” says Blasco Peñaherrera Padilla, who served as Ecuador’s vice president from 1984 to 1988 with the country’s Liberal Conservative party. 

Hinostroza hopes to welcome Assange to Ecuador. “I want him to come here, so that he can see that he won’t be able to do his job,” she said. “Every day they turn off more voices. Every day they violate human rights. Here it is worse to be a journalist than a criminal.” 

Sarah Kinosian is an American freelance journalist based in Medellin, Colombia. She currently works for news website Colombia Reports.