The man who defends the publishing of classified diplomatic cables as the ultimate right of freedom of expression is turning to a government that has been accused of major declines in press freedom in recent years, according to experts.
“There has been a serious, serious deterioration of freedom of the press in the last five years in Ecuador,” says Carlos Lauria, the Americas director for the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.
The Ecuadorean foreign minister, according to the Associate Press, reported that Mr. Assange sought refuge in the Andean country's embassy in London, and is seeking political asylum.
Ecuador is now reportedly weighing the request.
Assange has been wanted for questioning in Sweden after two women accused him of sexual misconduct there during a 2010 visit. Last week the British Supreme Court said it would not reopen his extradition case, paving the way for him to be sent to Sweden.
Assange shot to international attention in 2010 with the publishing of US diplomatic cables, the largest leak of classified US documents in history.
Why Ecuador? Mr. Lauria says it could possibly be linked to the television interview Assange did with President Correa on his television show The World Tomorrow in May.
On the show, according to this transcript, the two talk about WikiLeaks and Correa defends their publication, saying:
"First you don't owe anything, have nothing to fear. We have nothing to hide. Your WikiLeaks have made us stronger as the main accusations made by the American Embassy were due to our excessive nationalism and defense of the sovereignty of the Ecuadorian Government.
"On the other hand, WikiLeaks wrote a lot about the goals that the national media pursue, about the power groups who seek help and report to foreign embassies. We have absolutely nothing to fear. Let them publish everything they have about the Ecuadorian Government. But you will see how many things about those who oppose the civil revolution in Ecuador will come to light. Things to do with opportunism, betrayal, and being self-serving."
That kind of transparency, however, is not what media observers have witnessed inside Ecuador.
Correa has sued journalists and clamped down on the media with new laws, at the same time that he has expanded state media outlets. He says he is doing so to demand fairness from a sensational industry that happens to be his no. 1 critic. But Correa has been condemned across the board inside and outside Ecuador. An editorial in the Washington Post in January described Correa as the man behind “the most comprehensive and ruthless assault on free media underway in the Western Hemisphere.”
Most recently Freedom House condemned Correa for shutting down another independent media outlet. “Freedom of expression continues to be severely threatened in Ecuador,” said Daniel Calingaert, vice president of policy and external affairs at Freedom House, in a statement in June.
Of course, Assange might have trouble finding a suitable ally in terms of a free press at many Latin American embassies. According to Freedom House's 2011 press freedom index, the region enjoys free press in 39 percent of countries, while in 44 percent of nations the press environment is only “partly free.” Venezuela and Cuba continued to be “not free,” for their state control of the media, while Mexico and Honduras faced the same “not free” fate, mostly due to the threat of drug traffickers and other extralegal groups. The region's ranking was also influenced by the slipping of Chile and Guyana, and of course the dramatic slide of Ecuador.
“Chile’s decline to Partly Free and major setbacks in Ecuador are the latest in a series of negative developments in Latin America over the past decade. Whether due to violence by criminal groups, as in Mexico and Honduras, or government hostility to media criticism, as in Venezuela, Argentina, and Bolivia, media freedom is under threat in much of the region,” according to Freedom House.
When the TV interview with Correa wrapped up last month, the Ecuadorean president signed off by telling Assange, "Cheer up. Welcome to the club of the Persecuted."