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'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.
 
 
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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.”

 
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