The news that the government of Ecuador granted political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has quite properly triggered numerous commentaries on the irony—or better yet, hypocrisy—of Assange seeking help from Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa, one of the world’s leading adversaries of press freedom. Assange made his bid for asylum after the British authorities agreed to deport him to Sweden, where he has been charged with sexually assaulting two women, Freedom House reports.
During WikiLeaks’ heyday, Assange was prone to self-righteous pontifications about his contribution to freedom of information and expression. But his new ally, Correa, has systematically attempted to muzzle Ecuador’s press through a variety of instruments that include lawsuits before a pliant judiciary, censorship, and state intimidation. Since Correa assumed power, Ecuador has suffered one of the world’s most substantial declines in press freedom, according to Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press report.
The link below connects to a shortened version of the Ecuador chapter from Freedom of the Press 2012, which covers the year 2011.
Since the reporting period ended, Correa, in response to a firestorm of criticism from governments and press freedom organizations, has pardoned the three executives and the columnist for El Universo who had received jail sentences for libel, and forgiven the $42 million in fines against the newspaper. Other developments in 2012 have been more in keeping with Correa’s personal war against what he calls “media dictatorship.” These include the shutdown of several privately owned television and radio stations and the imposition of “preemptive censorship” during an election period. In a recent television appearance, Correa held up a photo of Gustavo Cortez, El Universo’s editor, and told his viewers to remember his face “as a lucid example of the bad press in the country.”
Since President Rafael Correa took office in early 2007, he has repeatedly taken steps to undermine press freedom, as detailed at a meeting hosted by the Center for International Media Assistance and the National Endowment for Democracy’s Latin America and Caribbean program.
As a recent CIMA report, Confronting the News: The State of Independent Media in Latin America, noted, pressures on the media have involved raids and shutdowns of broadcast outlets, government advertising boycotts, and attempts to influence the news agenda through the establishment of state-owned or controlled outlets. Criminal defamation suits have also increased. Most recently, Correa filed a personal suit against El Universo, seeking $80 million in damages and up to three years in prison for the newspaper’s three executives and a columnist, over allegations of “defamatory libel.” This increasingly threatening and restrictive context raises serious concerns and questions about freedom of expression in the country and about the ability of journalists and media owners to carry out their activity.