Last summer Ecuador exploded onto the front page of world newspapers as its government got entangled in a diplomatic crisis with the United Kingdom and Sweden. Ecuador offered asylum to Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, arguing that he was a victim of political persecution.
Mr. Assange entered the Ecuadorian embassy on June 19 (where he remains) and crisis ensued as the British Chancellor, William Hague, threatened to use force to enter the embassy if Ecuador did not collaborate in getting Assange to answer to Swedish justice for two demands of sexual assault. Soon, a crowd composed of curious passersby and Assange supporters wearing the popular Guy Fawkes mask gathered at 3 Hans Crescent, London. They demanded the Australian’s liberty, praising him as a martyr for freedom of speech. But did any of these idealists realize what they were asking for? Where were they sending their Messiah?
First, a context. Rafael Correa has been president of Ecuador for almost 6 years now, and will most likely be re-elected for another four-year period in the upcoming elections. He has implemented socialist reforms under his “Bolivarian Revolution” in a way that reminds one of Chavez’ ascension and endurance in power: populism by contrasting the rich and poor, as well as a systematic policy of propaganda and censorship – all accomplished with his gift for rhetoric and diverting public attention.
Asylum was given to Assange when Correa faced uncomfortable attention due to the appearance of false signatures of people claiming support to different political parties. A minimum number of signatures were needed by the parties to be able to participate in the next elections. Correa’s Alianza PAIS, was not well positioned as half of their signatures were proven to be false.
The polemic that accompanied the welcoming of Assange into Ecuador distracted the media, and overshadowed the sticky situation in which the government found itself. Moreover, William Hague’s threat was favorable to the Ecuadorian position, as they could now legitimize their position internationally.
The image the Ecuadorian government wants to project internationally is that of a defender of freedom of speech. As chancellor Ricardo Patiño argued: “Assange is a communication professional who has been honored internationally in his fight for freedom of speech, press freedom, and human rights in general”. What he forgot to say is how this reconciles with the government’s domestic policy towards the public and media.
One resource often used by the Correa’s government is to interrupt radio and TV programs that express a critical stance on his government and instead give personal nationwide broadcasts. The aggressiveness of these public broadcasts is increasing, qualifying the entirety of media as “liars” and “corrupt”.
The peak of the enmity with the media occurred after Emilio Palacio published an editorial titled No a las metiras (No to lies) in El Universo, in which he accused the government of ordering the military to shoot against a building filled with civilians during a police uprising in September 30, 2010. He demanded the government to take responsibility for the deaths during the operation: one civilian, two policemen and two army soldiers. Correa’s response was to sue the newspaper, the columnist, and the Perez brothers (owners of the newspaper) for the crime of “slanderous libel” and expected to receive a total of 80$ million dollars from the three actors in addition to three years of prison for Palacio and the Perez brothers.
In an unusually fast process, the judge made a decision favorable to the government in which the prison sentences remained the same and the amount to be paid was halved. Needless to say, this fine threatened the very existence of the newspaper. The outrage was not only national but international, with foreign governments and media, as well as the World Press Freedom Committee protesting the decision. Under so much pressure the Correa was nice enough to ‘forgive’ the newspaper. Consequently, government ministers came to signal Correa as a character of superior morale, who is willing to forgive personal injustices for the greater interests of his country.
Despite the ‘El Universo’ setback, the populist leader has not stopped. His most recent encroachment of the media consisted of forcing El Comercio (the biggest paper in the capital) to eliminate the option of people commenting on their news. These attacks continue to undermine the main opposing forms of written and oral media, in a campaign of censorship further supplemented with his own national broadcasts conducted every weekend, known mainly for their hostility towards political opponents.
This is Correa’s Ecuador so many want Assange to go to – where liberties are being coerced, and a disorganized opposition has no tools against the steamroller of governmental propaganda. The Assange case is just another component that elucidates the contradicting nature of Ecuador’s foreign and domestic discourse, while Correa keeps adopting postures each time more similar to the populist leaders of 20th century Latin America.
– Camilo Ucrós