Ecuador's Correa says no hypocrisy in his defense of WikiLeaks' Assange

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, whose government has closed 14 news outlets since the start of the year, says his free speech defense of Assange isn't hypocritical because different rules apply.

Dolores Ochoa/AP
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa waves from the government palace balcony during the weekly change of the guard ceremony in Quito, Ecuador, Monday, Aug. 20.

For President Rafael Correa, there's no hypocrisy in his defense of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange on free speech grounds and the harsh restrictions he imposes on the press in Ecuador.

President Correa says the Latin American press is corrupt and so needs a different set of rules to apply. “Don’t let yourself by fooled by what’s going on,” he told foreign journalists in Ecuador’s second city, Guayaquil, on Monday. “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.”

Granting asylum to Mr. Assange, the founder of the anti-secrecy group that has released thousands of US diplomatic cables, is part of what he calls a “David and Goliath” battle against big powers; a battle in which Ecuador “will not back down, no matter how long it takes.”

Assange took refuge inside the Ecuadorean embassy in London in June to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he's wanted for questioning on allegations of rape, sexual assault, and unlawful coercion.

He and his supporters say the charges are part of a plot to get him extradited to the US where, they say, he could face harsh penalties. The US has not made a formal extradition request for Assange, and it would be harder to secure his extradition from Sweden than it would be from the United Kingdom. Ecuador announced it would formally offer Assange asylum last Thursday.

The UK has refused to allow Assange safe passage out of the country, insisting it will arrest him as required under international and its own extradition treaties. Last week, after the UK warned Ecuador that it might withdraw the embassy's protected status to arrest Assange – who had violated the terms of his house arrest agreement when he fled to the embassy – both Ecuador and Assange ratcheted up tension in the standoff, implying the UK was planning on storming the embassy.

A ruse?

Many believe that Ecuador’s harboring of Assange is merely a ruse to boost Correa’s popularity in the run-up to elections next February and to deflect charges that he has severely restricted freedom of expression in Ecuador.

According to its own numbers, the Ecuadorian government has shut down 14 media outlets since the beginning of the year. In most of these instances the government claimed the stations had violated licensing laws and owed minimal fines, to which it responded by seizing all equipment and shutting them down without warning. When asked last night if this treatment was fair, President Correa responded, “Yes.”

“We believe in some way that the Ecuadorian government is using the figure of Mr. Assange, his celebrity, to repair the image of President Correa abroad,” said Diego Cornejo the director of the Ecuadorian Association of Newspaper Editors in an interview with the Spanish news agency Efe.

But amid the cries of hypocrisy about Ecuador’s press oppression comes the case of Alexander Barankov, a Belarusian former army captain, who is currently facing extradition back to his home country at Belarus’ request, despite Ecuador having granted him asylum two years ago after he exposed corruption in his homeland.

Maria Fernanda Torres, a journalist for Ecuador's El Tiempo newspaper, denies that President Correa interferes with journalists. "I feel no pressure whatsoever carrying out my work," she said. "If journalists break the law they face sanctions, but that's the same in every country. I admire Julian Assange a lot, he is one of the few people that gives a face to the anonymous hacker, and you have to be very brave to do that.”

Latin America analyst James Bosworth says Correa may have thought defending Assange would neutralize criticisms of how he has restricted and censored media. But instead, "the attention brought by this case has increased the coverage of Correa's hypocrisy on the issue," Mr. Bosworth says. "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.”

At Monday’s press conference, Correa said many journalists in Latin America were mediocre and liars. “What hasn’t been understood is that the press in Latin America is lies,” he said. “If it were the US it wouldn’t be allowed, what we are asking for is quality.”

According to Mr. Bosworth, “President Correa is enjoying the increased international attention, but as long as the UK doesn't change its current position, he has few real options. The biggest threat to both Correa and Assange is that the UK doesn't act and simply waits them out.”

With respect to the charges against Assange, President Correa continues to reiterate that the Swedish Government can interrogate the former hacker at Ecuador’s embassy if it desires – an invitation that Swedish authorities have repeatedly turned down, pointing out they have a lawful extradition request for a man accused of a serious crime by two women.

Correa said that what Assange is accused of “would not be considered crimes in Latin America."

Ecuador is digging its heels, insisting it will bring the case before the International Criminal Court if the UK refuses to budge. Ecuadorian political analyst Hernan Reyes says, “Ecuador feels support after the weekend and is going to hold strong and continue the campaign to try and garner support against “imperialist powers.”

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