BOGOTA, Colombia — 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 multimillion-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 for questioning about alleged sexual misconduct. Ecuador Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino 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 Cesar 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 communiques 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.
When an indignant Correa asked Hodges for an explanation, he claims she responded haughtily. When the government demanded that she leave, the United States retaliated, declaring Ecuador’s ambassador to the United States persona non-grata.
Diplomatic relations have since been restored and the police chief was found innocent, but Correa often cites WikiLeaks as he has rails against what he considers the United States’ undue influence in the region. During the May interview, he told Assange he welcomed WikiLeak’s spotlight on international affairs.
“If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear,” the president said. But Correa has proven to have a thin skin when he’s the one in the media’s glare.
In 2011, he sued two journalists for $1 million each after they wrote a book suggesting his brother, Rafael, had won millions in contracts under his administration. Correa also won a $42 million judgment and three-year prison sentence against three directors of El Universo newspaper and one of its columnists.
That case revolved around a scathing editorial that focused on the events of September 2010, when Correa was briefly taken hostage by protesting policemen. Four security officers died when they raided the hospital to free Correa. In the editorial, columnist Emilio Palacio suggested that a future president might press charges against Correa, including crimes against humanity, for ordering troops to attack a hospital full of innocent civilians.
El Universo said the trial was plagued by irregularities and that the court was in the president’s pocket. The subsequent guilty verdict brought the condemnation of human rights and media groups including the Miami-based Inter American Press Association.
Correa eventually issued pardons to everyone in both cases except Palacio, who was granted political asylum in the United States.
Speaking from Miami, where he is finishing a book about his fight with the administration, Palacio said Assange is probably betting on Correa because there are few other leaders who would consider taking him in.
Assange’s request is based on the premise that Sweden will send him to the United States under a sealed, and therefore secret, extradition request. Once in the United States, he fears he will be tortured or executed for espionage, according to his mother and a website set up for his legal defense. But Sweden wants him for questioning about alleged sexual harassment — not for free speech violations — and the United States has never publically asked for his extradition.
That creates a complicated diplomatic scenario, Palacio said. “I don’t think any other president in the world would want this hot potato,” he added.
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Once in Ecuador, Assange will likely be on a tight leash, Palacio said.
“If Assange were to say anything that Correa didn’t like, I think he would do to him what he did to all of us — persecute him, sue him and throw him in jail,” Palacio said. “He’d be on the next plane back to England.”
But Assange may be ready for a change of pace, according to his mother Christine, who visited Ecuador early this month to press for her son’s asylum case. After meeting with Correa and other Cabinet members, she told local media that her son would feel at home in the mountainous country.
“I like the simple life and nature, as does Julian,” Christine Assange said. “If Julian were to come here, I think he would love it.”