Julian Assange in asylum: Will he find press freedom in Ecuador?

Is President Rafael Correa of Ecuador bent on taking up the mantle of regional leadership in South America by granting asylum to Julian Assange?

Ecuador, a country long known for political instability but more recently celebrated for giving asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, has many other serious problems for President Rafael Correa to address.  The impasse at Correa’s embassy in London, where Assange is currently lodged, came to a climax when the British government backed down and gave assurances that it would not storm the embassy to seize Assange

 
The white-haired Australian is facing extradition to Sweden to answer rape charges, while the United States still wants to question him about classified documents in his possession that came to Wikileaks, courtesy of Private Bradley Manning. The latter is facing trial, and a probable lengthy prison sentence for leaking thousands of classified files to Assange, even while Assange has yet to be indicted by the U.S.. Ecuador’s  foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, last month described the Swedish accusations as “hilarious,” and a ruse to facilitate Assange’s eventual extradition to the United States,
 
President Correa has minimized the accusations against Assange, apparently bathing in the opprobrium emanating from the United States and Britain, as well as the approval of Assange’s fan base. However, whether the newly found celebrity will reap enduring rewards for Correa and Ecuador remains to be seen.
 
Among the issues noted by Correa’s critics has been the recent official closure of an opposition television stations, as well as more than a dozen radio stations.  Correa defended the giving of asylum to Assange of Wikileaks in order to defend freedom of speech. The closing of opposition media sources in Ecuador, then, opened Correa to accusations of inconsistency if not hypocrisy. 
 
In an interview with Spero News, renowned Latin America analyst Larry Birns framed Correa’s actions within the context of Correa’s economic and social policies. In addition, Birns minimized accusations that Correa’s silencing of media critics amounted to an assault on press freedoms. “I hear on almost a daily basis battles over who is correct over the Ecuador journalism issue. There are very strong feelings about it. I think that certainly the government acted in an authoritarian manner. But I would not exactly describe the bulk of the Ecuadorean media at the time as a responsible vehicle for freedom of the press. They were defamatory, vehement. The articles that they brought out were tendentious. There was almost no way that they president could respond because most of the papers were owned by the private sector that were very hostile to Correa’s rule.”
 
Birns alluded to a case in which Correa was widely criticized in another clash with the media. In July 2011, Correae won a libel action against Emilio Palacio, a columnist who had expressed opposition views. An Ecuadorean court imposed a disproportionate penalty against Palacio. In addition, three directors of El Universo, a local newspaper, were given three years in jail and fines totaling $40 million. Roundly condemned, Correa pardoned all four men, but only after Palacio himself sought asylum in the United States. Of this Birns said even while Correa became increasingly “unappealing and volatile” in his demands for compensation for damages, the Ecuadorean president finally “waived those away and refused to collect them.”
 
Correa is immensely popular in Ecuador and if an election were held today Correa would certainly win, said Birns. The middle class of Ecuador, said Birns, is not “particularly enlightened,” and like the wealthy, are not “particularly sensitive to the issues of poverty and joblessness” of Ecuador’s majority, the poor. 
The clash between Britain and Ecuador over Assange has managed to allow Correa to cast his as a small country battling “imperialist” powers. British Foreign Secretary William Hague vehemently denied an accusation laid by Correa that the UK planned to “storm” Ecuador’s embassy in London and apprehend Assange.
 
Correa got endorsements from his partners in the ALBA coalition, which includes Venezuela and Argentina, as well as plaudits at a specially convened meeting of UNASUR, held on August 19 in Ecuador’s port city, Guayaquil. Hedging their bets, though, UNASUR members sent diplomatic emissaries, not foreign ministers, to the Guayaquil meeting and limited themselves to support for Assange’s asylum.  The granting of asylum in embassies is not recognized by international law, even though it is traditional in Latin America where politics has long been deadly. Elsewhere, there is precedent: the U.S. embassy in Hungary granted political asylum to Cardinal József Mindszenty, who resided as a guest there for 15 years.
 
Asked whether Correa is seeking to take on the mantle of regional leadership, as an ailing President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela appears to falter, Birns averred that “there is something to that.” And unlike Chavez, Correa was not constantly flying across the world. According to Birns, Correa built bridges instead of taking foreign trips, and in order to be the “president of development and the president of reform” he would need investment capital to bring extractive resources to the surface and thus fulfill the promises he made to the indigenous communities that they would share in Ecuador's burgeoning petroleum and natural gas wealth.
 
The Council on Hemispheric Affairs has had a long record of championing human rights and environmental causes in Latin America, playing an especially notable role during the 1970s and 80s as the U.S. Congress investigated human rights abuses in the region, especially those committed during Argentina's so-called 'Dirty War.' COHA is expected to soon release a report on the effects of President Correa's policies regarding his country's mineral wealth and the influence of trans-national companies such as the Rio Tinto mining firm.


Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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