BOGOTA -- WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa seem to be worlds apart. Assange has pushed the envelope of free speech as his controversial website has published classified U.S. diplomatic cables and other sensitive correspondence. Correa has been condemned for his anti-press crusade, which has included leveling multi-million dollar libel suits and forbidding his cabinet from speaking to anyone other than state-run media.
But if Assange has his way, the small Andean nation, best known for the Galapagos and the Amazon, will be his new home. Since June, Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London asking for political asylum as he fights extradition to Sweden where he’s wanted on allegations of sexual misconduct. Ecuador Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño has said a decision on the asylum request could come as soon as next week, after London’s Olympics close.
But Assange’s choice of asylum destination has baffled some in Ecuador.
“It seems to me that Assange either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about what’s happening to local journalists,” said César Ricaurte, the director of Fundamedios, a free speech group that has been critical of the government.
Assange seems to have the facts. In May, he interviewed Correa for his show “The World Tomorrow,” which runs on Russian state television. Challenged about his combative relationship with the press, Correa said that in Ecuador, and many parts of Latin America, elite media conglomerates are more powerful than the presidency, and that he has drawn their ire by trying to democratize the airwaves.
“We have to dispel the notion of poor and brave journalists and angelic media trying to tell the truth while tyrants, autocrats and dictators are trying to stop them,” Correa said. “It’s not true. In fact, the opposite is true.”
In power since 2007, Correa’s common touch and progressive social policies have made him the clear front runner in next year’s presidential elections. He’s used much of his political capital to take on what he calls the “corrupt press.” Along with punishing lawsuits, he pushed through a 2011 referendum that made it illegal for media conglomerates to have holdings outside their industry. More recently, he announced that he would cut government advertising to private media, denying them a traditional source of revenue.
The financial and judicial pressures have had a chilling effect on the press and dampened critical voices, Fundamedios said.
“It seems to us that government resources are being used to punish or reward media depending on their political stance,” Ricaurte said.
WikiLeaks was launched in 2006 as a whistle-blowing website, where documents could be published anonymously. But it caught Latin America’s attention in 2010 when it began releasing confidential U.S. State Department cables. The Miami Herald’s parent company, McClatchy, is one of WikiLeaks publishing partners.
Buried among those communiqués was a 2009 document by the U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador Heather Hodges. In it, she outlined alleged corruption charges against a former police chief and speculated that Correa had appointed him because his checkered past made him easy to manipulate.