Ecuador is no human-rights darling. Left-wing President Rafael Correa has built a decidedly authoritarian reputation that includes a yen for prosecuting journalists who irk him. This week he won passage of a media bill that slashes the number of private outlets, greatly increases state-controlled broadcasting and makes Correa the nation’s de facto media censor.
But Correa does care about shielding at least one free-speech advocate: Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who released thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic cables. Assange, hoping to avoid extradition to Sweden to answer sexual-assault charges — and possibly extradition to the U.S. for espionage — has been holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London since last summer, when Correa granted him political asylum. Because Assange can’t leave the embassy building, Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño even declared this week that the U.K. is violating the pale-complected WikiLeaker’s “fundamental right to sunbathe.” (And no, you won’t find that in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)
No wonder Assange this week said he thinks the whistle-blower of the moment, Edward Snowden — who is now in Hong Kong after admitting he leaked information about a secret and controversial U.S. domestic spying program to the media this month — should look south for sanctuary. “I would strongly advise [Snowden] to go to Latin America,” Assange told CNN.
But here’s the flaw, at least the p.r. flaw, in Assange’s thinking. The countries most inclined to take Snowden in — that is, those with leftist governments like Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, which would love to hold him up as an anti-U.S. trophy — also sport some of Latin America’s more checkered human-rights records these days. Specifically, their policies tend to mock the very free-speech, free-information crusade that leakers like Assange and Snowden champion.
Ecuador and Venezuela, for example, have some of the western hemisphere’s toughest antidefamation laws. You don’t just get dragged into civil court to face libel or slander complaints; if you insult or otherwise offend government officials, you can face a criminal trial and time behind bars.
Before he died in March, Venezuela’s socialist firebrand President Hugo Chávez often used the “media responsibility” codes he enacted in the 2000s to combat what he called “the impunity of the bourgeoisie,” which was revolution-speak for opposition criticism. “Venezuela’s private, independent press has been weakened by blow after government blow over the past decade,” says Carlos Lauria, Americas director for the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. “What private outlets are left really don’t broadcast news anymore as a result. Dissent gets stifled.” In Ecuador, responding to global outcry, Correa finally pardoned a journalist and three newspaper executives last year after they’d been convicted, sentenced to prison terms and fined $40 million for criminally defaming him.
Hence the red embassy carpet Correa rolled out for Assange months later. The Ecuadorean President hoped WikiLeaks’ liberal cachet would rub off on his otherwise caudillo profile, not to mention build up his leadership stature inside Latin America’s leftist, anti-Yanqui bloc of nations, known as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, or ALBA. Russian President Vladimir Putin, himself no friend of press freedom or open government, no doubt had similar motives when he said this week he’d consider an asylum request from Snowden. Folks like Snowden, says Lauria, “do need to know how hypocritical it looks and sounds when countries like Ecuador try to wash their negative images and rights records by offering them asylum.”
That should have been apparent to Assange in recent years as ALBA countries led a drive to dismantle the Organization of American States’ (OAS) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. That body, not coincidentally, has been critical of the press-muzzling policies and other antidemocratic practices gaining ground in many ALBA countries. At this month’s OAS general assembly in Guatemala, Ecuador headed a drive to pack the commission with ALBA-friendly members, but it was decisively rejected by the rest of the hemisphere.
Even in the rest of Latin America, factors like criminal and political violence against journalists — since 2010, 25 have been murdered in Honduras and 24 in Mexico — makes the region less than a place “that is really pushing forward in human rights,” as Assange somewhat naively put it this week. Granted, with the sole exception of Cuba, Latin America (and the Caribbean) is now a democratic street. But democratic elections are no guarantee of democratic governance — or of safe conditions for critical, investigative media.
Or, for that matter, for leakers, whistle-blowers and other defiant democrats (or traitors, depending on how you look at it) like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. It’s something they should keep in mind before seeking refuge in countries that might be shielding them simply as a way to shield themselves from human-rights criticism — or as an easy way to kick the U.S. in the shins.