Glenn Garvin: Julian Assange and Ecuador’s strangled press


When I visited London in July and stopped at Harrods department store to buy some ostrich jerky (who says British cuisine is philistine?), nobody mentioned that Wikileaker-in-chief Julian Assange was celebrating his 42nd birthday just a few hundred feet away. If I’d known, I would have stopped by with a present, maybe a quaint needlepoint: AN EMBASSY IS NOT A HOME.

Then again, he already knows. Fifteen months after he took refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London to escape extradition to Sweden for questioning on sexual-assault charges there, Assange is not having such a great time, if a new report in Vanity Fair is to be believed.

The outside street is so noisy that he sleeps in the women’s bathroom. He lives on takeout food (and with the fear that it’s been poisoned). He can’t even go into the building’s lobby, which is technically not part of the embassy and thus fair game for the British cops waiting to arrest him. And he’s miffed that the primly Catholic Ecuadoreans won’t let his girlfriend spend the night.

Still, his chums tell Vanity Fair, Assange hopes that one of these days the British will relent and let him fly to Ecuador to claim political asylum. If the Obama administration is serious about its wish to put Assange in jail — a federal grand jury has already been convened, and by some accounts has even issued a sealed indictment — it should probably tell the Brits to let him fly to Quito. For he will almost certainly wind up in jail there.

Aside from the Castro brothers, there’s nobody in the Western Hemisphere who’s trying harder to do away with freedom of the press than Assange’s putative champion, Ecuador’s rambunctiously left-wing president Rafael Correa. In June, Correa pushed through a law establishing the crime of “media lynching,” defined as the “dissemination of information” with “the purpose of discrediting” someone. If Richard Nixon had access to a law like that, maybe Woodward and Bernstein would have won a second Pulitzer for their prison diaries.

You’d think even the most hyperactive despot would rest on his laurels for a while after passing a masterpiece like the media-lynching law, but for all the criticism of Correa, nobody has ever attacked his work ethic. Earlier this month, his chief legal advisor asked the legislature to let the government start jailing people for wisecracks on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

That’s right: Call somebody — particularly a somebody in Correa’s government — a NWAL (Twitterspeak for “nerd without a life”) or accuse him of RCI (“recto-cranial inversion,” a cute way of saying his head is stuck you-know-where) and you could go to prison for up to three years under the president’s proposal.

Alex Mera, the Correa advisor who announced the initiative, justified it on the excellent grounds that the government can already jail somebody for making insults in a newspaper or on TV, so why not Facebook, too? “The same penalty that exists for defamation in the communications media, or in any other situation, is applicable in cases of defamation on social networks,” he said.

If you suspect this is a silly reductio ad absurdum argument and that Correa would never do such a thing in real life, consider some of the cases the president has already taken to court against his critics. In 2011, an Indian leader was convicted of criminal libel simply for calling Correa’s chief of staff “ nouveau riche.” Last year the president went after the newspaper La Hora simply for printing the government’s advertising budget on the grounds that the figures were “inexact or unproven.” One of his puppet judges forced the paper to print an apology.

Correa’s lawsuits against news media — seeking criminal penalties, tens of millions of dollars in damages, or both — have closed so many news outlets and sent so many journalists fleeing into exile that the human-rights group Freedom Watch recently dropped the country’s rating to “not free,” a status it shares with North Korea, Somalia and Syria. “There was more press freedom under Ecuador’s military dictatorship in the 1970s than there is today under the democratically elected government of Rafael Correa,” veteran radio journalist Miguel Ribadeneira recently told the BBC.

That’s a state secret that I don’t think will make it onto Wikileaks.

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