Julian Assange, the controversial Australian founder of Wikileaks, walked into Ecuador‘s London embassy on Tuesday to request political asylum. He may have picked just the right kind of government to accept him.
The South American country in April 2011 became the only one to officially expel a U.S. ambassador over the scandal generated by the thousands of leaked diplomatic cables. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa—a populist firebrand whose thin-skinned response to the stolen cables’ detailing police corruption in Ecuador prompted U.S. ambassador Heather Hodges’ dismissal—has faced global criticism over his track record on free speech and could see in Assange just the character to help him restore some of his tarnished credentials.
The UK’s top court last week refused Assange’s final appeal against being sent to Sweden to face charges of rape and sexual harassment, which he claims are politically trumped up. “Death threats, economic boycott and the possibility of being handed over to the authorities of the United States by British, Swedish or Australian authorities have led me to seek asylum on Ecuadorean territory and protection to allow me to continue with my mission,” he said in a letter read to the media in Quito by Ricardo Patiño, Ecuador’s Foreign Minister. Assange says that he could face the death penalty in the U.S. for having published confidential government cables, along with thousands of Pentagon documents earlier. Patiño said that Ecuador hasn’t yet granted him asylum, but he may stay at the embassy until the Correa administration makes its decision. Last year, Quito fumed over the leaked cables, insisting their contents – which suggested that Correa had knowingly named an allegedly corrupt chief of police in order to be able to control him better – were completely untrue.
Assange’s star has waned overseas in recent months from his earlier halcyon days of global celebrity, where he was seen by millions as a champion of transparency, democracy and justice. Besides the stigma of his alleged sex crimes, Assange has seen former colleagues leave Wikileaks to found rival outlets; some blame his egomania and erratic personality for their departures. Media that collaborated with Assange to publish the documents later became embroiled in disputes with him over the use of the material. From his house arrest in the U.K., he recently began to host an interview program that media critics have derided as bland; the show is broadcast by RT, an English-language network close to the Russian government—hardly a shining example of openness and democracy.
That last irony may make Assange more palatable to Correa, whose reputation regarding freedom of speech is as poor as that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Assange interviewed Correa on his show, presenting him as a paragon of liberalism. The dull broadcast last month hardly made headlines even in the country’s government-controlled media. However, state daily El Telégrafo also interviewed Assange, boasting that it was the only newspaper in South America that had done so. In subsequent editions last month, it smeared reporters from private media and people close to the opposition as “informants” because they were cited by U.S. diplomats in the leaked cables. It thus considered some of their contents true, even as Correa’s government expelled Hodges over the supposed lies printed in the cables. El Telégrafo also said that privately-run newspapers a year earlier had chosen to publicize only cables that were damaging to the administration.
Most controversially, Correa was awarded $40 million in a libel suit against a columnist and newspaper editors of privately-owned newspaper El Universo. International pressure from organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters Without Borders, as well as western governments, led him to pardon the journalists in question and exonerate them of the libel damage award, as well as two investigative reporters in a separate case whose story detailed Correa’s brother’s questionable construction contracts with the administration. Emilio Palacio, the former Universo columnist, has nevertheless sought asylum in Miami.
More recently however, the government has moved against smaller, much less prominent media, shutting down nine local radio and television stations since mid May. Their equipment was seized for allegedly failing to pay fees to a regulator. Lawyers for the broadcasters have denied the charges and added that the cases were still in court. Additionally, following legislation earlier this year, the government will impose a form of media censorship ahead of the impending electoral campaign, blocking direct coverage of candidates in the contest. The constitutional court has yet to rule on whether the move was legal. Accurate economic data including oil production – crucial information in an OPEC country – has become difficult to find in Ecuador, and the government is seeking to have whistleblowers jailed under a new anti-crime bill. In a blustery speech before the Organization of American States’ meeting in Bolivia two weeks ago, Correa again attacked the OAS’s human rights commission, which has criticized his lawsuits against reporters. He threatened to leave the OAS if the commission’s wings aren’t clipped. The act of welcoming Assange affords Correa the ability to show that he is not entirely bent on silencing independent media.
As early as April 2011, a top Ecuadorean foreign ministry official called on Correa’s government to grant Assange asylum, only to be whistled back. On Tuesday however, the ministry deemed their Assange announcement “very transcendental for foreign policy,” hinting that his asylum request would be approved. But if and when Assange reaches Ecuador, he might soon find that his self-styled “mission,” if he truly pursues it, might make him persona non grata here too.