Information activist Julian Assange shocked his fans and gave more grist to his haters last week by announcing he would flee Swedish extradition orders to seek asylum from the South American nation of Ecuador.
“I had expected him to face the allegations. I am as surprised as anyone by this,” Tweeted socialite and activist Jemima Khan, one of Assange’s well-connected friends who put up the bond money when he was arrested on Dec. 7, 2010 on an extradition warrant, in London. He has exhausted his appeals against extradition back to Sweden where he is wanted for questioning on sex assault and rape charges (details here), but has not been formally charged.
Assange said in an interview with Australian paper The Age on Sunday that he won’t go back to Sweden until he’s guaranteed the Swedes won’t turn him over to the United States. The Australian-born Assange believes the U.S. is building a grand jury case against him over his role in WikiLeaks, which has leaked hundreds of thousands of classified and secret U.S. documents to the press over the last two years.
Catty columnists and Twitterbirds were quick to point out that Assange is testing the loyalty of his wealthy friends — including Khan — by skipping out of his house arrest at the risk of losing the collateral they posted for his bail (though Khan later said her Tweet had been “misinterpreted,” that she understands “why he’s taken such drastic action”).
But more critical here, is the question of whether Assange can maintain his purity as a human rights advocate and champion of government transparency if he seeks sanctuary in a nation with a mixed record on free speech, free press and most recently, a willingness to throw journalists in jail for libel.
On that, Assange’s usual naysayers eagerly pounced. “What does it say about the sanctimonious WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that he would seek the protection of an autocratic regime in Ecuador — a country that is one of world’s worst crusaders against free speech?” quipped Roger Noriega, former Bush assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, now an American Enterprise Institute fellow.
First of all, Ecuador is not an autocracy. President Rafael Correa has been democratically elected twice, the last time with 52 percent of the popular vote, 24 points ahead of his nearest rival. In its own words, The U.S. State Department says “Correa is the longest-serving president since the 1979 return to democracy, and is the first since then to enjoy sustained popularity in all regions of the country and among a broad array of class and demographic groups.”
But that doesn’t mean Noriega is entirely wrong about Correa, either. He’s got some free speech controversies to answer for. So is Assange being hypocritical? Or, desperate to avoid the grim fate of succumbing to Swedish authorities (who already said they would jail him), or worse, being rendered to the United States for who knows what misery, is he seeking sanctuary in one of the only places on the planet left open to him?
Correa, 49, leads what he calls the “Citizens’ Revolution”, a “21st Century Socialism,” that is supposedly more pragmatic than classic Marxism, recognizing the role of the private sector in the engine of growth, while infusing public resources into education, government pensions and services for the poor and shifting natural resources like the energy sector (i.e., oil ) toward a “nationalist state-led strategy,” more resembling the leftist policies of Venezuela and Bolivia.
This has clearly placed him in the crosshairs of right-wing conservative critics like Noriega, who’s spent the last decade conjuring elaborate ties between leftist governments in Central and South America and al-Qaeda/Hezbollah/Hamas terrorists.
But there is absolutely no evidence that Ecuador is “a country that is one of world’s worst crusaders against free speech” — that’s just flat-out hyperbole. Correa is indeed locked in a serious media war with the privately-owned media there. Whether he is on the side of the angels or the devil depends on whom you ask.
To be sure, President Correa says he is a champion of the people and of the revolution — “true free speech, true liberty” (as he described in an extensive May interview on the Assange’s regular World of Tomorrow Russia Today television program):
The private media are big business with lucrative aims. They have always attacked governments who want to change, governments who seek justice and equity. They defend openly very clear vested interests. For the goodness of our democracy, the real freedom of expression, it is necessary to regulate and control that. One of the ways of doing this is generating public media, public service media. …
The media here are the property of six families. They bequeath it to their children, and then the children might be completely ignorant and they become the editors of the newspapers…
This is what we are trying to do — democratize the information, the social communication, the property of the media — but obviously we have, of course, the merciless opposition of the media owners and of their acolytes in the opposition in Ecuador.
But Correa has the full force of the government behind him, including the judiciary and the legislative branches, and the guns, so any struggle between the government and the private media is sure to be lopsided. In 2008, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the state literally seized two financially failing private television stations (among 264 businesses taken over by the Correa’s government from July to October), and started running them as state house organs. Weeks later, the state took over an editorial house that published the Quito-based Hoy newspaper. On July 8, Correa had Radio Sucre shut down for allegedly using an illegal frequency. Correa had called the station’s owner a man “without moral authority” for urging Guayaquil residents to march against local crime — a protest Correa insisted was politically motivated.
In September that year, according to CPJ, 64 percent of Ecuadorans voted to approve a new constitution that broadened the executive branch’s powers by allowing the president to run for two more consecutive terms, and giving him more control over the economy, legislative branch and judiciary. Free speech advocates cite language in the new constitution that could lead to more government regulation of the news media.
Meanwhile, Correa has been pressing hard for a communications law that would impose a new framework — including regulation — on Ecuadoran media. Reporters Without Borders issued a statement in 2010 saying that while there is a need to break up and “prohibit the monopolies and oligopolies in media ownership,” the language in the draft bill “seems to open the way for censorship and language limiting the content of media programming,” and puts a short leash on the press by requiring outlets to register with the government.
More recently, Ecuador’s highest court upheld a criminal court libel conviction against the El Universo newspaper, and sentenced its three owners and a reporter to three years in jail (along with $40 million in damages).. The case stemmed from charges the paper had called Correa a dictator and insinuated he was responsible for crimes against humanity after his actions in the 2010 police uprising. Correa nevertheless pardoned the men immediately after the sentencing.
Just in the last two months, government police shut down eight radio stations for failing to pay late licensing fees; another radio station for “lacking a license to broadcast” and another for failing to comply with a licensing agreement. That makes 14 stations closed by the government’s telecom regulator since Jan. 1, according to Reporters Without Borders. Critics charge the mass closings are politically motivated, the government said it was finally doing its job.
Human Rights Watch declared in a earlier statement on its website that “Ecuador’s laws restrict freedom of expression, and government officials, including Correa, use these laws against his critics.” It also charged that “corruption, inefficiency, and political influence have plagued the Ecuadorian judiciary for many years,” and that “impunity for police abuses is widespread.”
This hardly seems like Assange’s cup of tea, yet he did not press President Correa too hard during their recent television interview. Assange seemed more in agreement about Correa’s portrayal of the media as a profit-driven monopoly that was working against progressive reforms there, and gently advocated for a less punitive, less regulated climate at least for small independent media:
President Correa, I … I agree with your market description of the media. We have seen this again and again — that big media organizations that we have worked with, like the Guardian, El País, New York Times and Der Spiegel, have censored our material — against our agreements — when they published it for political reasons or to protect oligarchs. …
But it seems to me that the correct approach to deal with monopolies and duopolies and cartels in a market is to break them up, or to make it so it is very easy for new publishers to enter into the market. Shouldn’t you create a system that protects the ease of entry into the publishing market so that small publishers and individuals are protected and have no regulation, and that these bigger publishers are broken up or are regulated?
“That is what we are trying to do, Julian,” Correa responded, insisting the new communication law — which he claims is being thwarted by media itself — would level the playing field so that the private companies would make up one-third of the press in Ecuador, with non-profits and public news ventures rounding out the rest.
Plus, Correa is a big fan of WikiLeaks. “We have nothing to fear. They can publish anything they want about the Ecuadorian government but you will see there will be many things that come out about people who betrayed and vested interests of many supporters of opponents of the Ecuadorian revolution,” said Correa, who kicked U.S. Ambassador Heath Hodges out of Quito in 2011 after a leaked American cable accused Correa of knowingly keeping a corrupt police official employed in the department (an apparently bemused Hodges talks about her expulsion here). Correa insists the police commander was cleared of all charges in a subsequent investigation.
It is obvious that Assange and Correa, who obtained his master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Illinois in the late 1990s, have an easy rapport. It has also been reported that Ecuador had offered Assange asylum in 2010, but it never went beyond an informal gesture.
Meanwhile, critics like Brian Braiker of the Mail & Guardian online, have called Ecuador a “counterintuitive refuge for the free-speech and transparency crusader.” Others have flat out called Assange a hypocrite. When asked by Fran Kelly of Australia’s ABC Radio about the seeming contradiction in an interview with Assange from his new digs at the Ecuadoran embassy, he responded: “Well, its free speech issues are certainly no worse than ones in the U.K. I mean, this is the country with hundreds of gag orders, so let’s keep things in perspective. I mean, I would enjoy campaigning for the rights of journalists in Ecuador.”
So What Are His Alternatives?
Assange is convinced he will be extradited to the U.S. if he is returned to Sweden. Honestly, his fears are not without some merit. In 2005, Human Rights Watch accused Sweden of violating the United Nations ban on torture when it turned over two asylum seekers to the U.S., which rendered the men to Egypt, where they were allegedly tortured and imprisoned since 2001.
Assange also insists that his own government in Australia will not help him. Indeed, despite popular support, Canberra has only offered lukewarm assurances that it would step in on Assange’s behalf if he loses his extradition appeals and is readied to cart off to Stockholm. “What Mr. Assange and his supporters … seem to misunderstand is that there is nothing that the Australian government can currently do that it has not been doing,” Attorney General Nicola Roxon told reporters over the weekend.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Bob Carr said he does not believe the U.S. would move to extradite Assange, but Canberra “would make representations in Washington” if it did. We’re sure London is quaking in its wellies. More tellingly, Carr still insists there’s “a certain amorality” about WikiLeaks “releasing a whole batch of secret material without assessment and without justification.”
Assange’s critics say he is paranoid, but in 2010 Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged he had been authorized to take on a “significant” criminal investigation against WikiLeaks. Witnesses have been brought in and Twitter accounts subpoenaed, and this year a leaked Stratfor memo indicated the Justice Department already has a sealed indictment, the existence of which the government has neither confirmed nor denied.
No doubt Assange is playing a huge role in the court-martial of Pvt. Bradley Manning, who stands to spend the rest of his life in military prison for handing some 750,000 secured government documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. Many speculate that the government is looking for ways to bring down Assange and that Manning is only one piece of a broader FBI investigation into WikiLeaks.
The key to nailing Assange, spectators say, is establishing a link that shows Assange coerced or actively helped Manning steal the documents from military computers.
“Many U.S. experts have concluded a prosecution case could at least be constructed and pressed in spite of strong First Amendment arguments,” wrote Philip Dorling in a piece called “Are Assange’s Fears Justified?” for the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday.
And don’t forget the list of U.S. leaders and newsmakers who already insist Assange is guilty and have even called for his execution.
“Put yourself in Julian Assange’s place,” charged activist and writer Ray McGovern, who spent 27 years in the CIA.
“If The New York Times accurately described President Barack Obama as saying it was an ‘easy’ decision to authorize the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen alleged to have participated in terrorist operations against U.S. targets, how confident would you be that the onetime constitutional scholar would resist the political pressure to get rid of you?”
Correa says he is now weighing his own options for taking Assange in as a long-term house guest. He would naturally have to determine whether it was worth risking his heretofore independent yet carefully managed relationship with the U.S. (including foreign aid and trade agreements in which the U.S. absorbed $7.5 billion of Ecuador’s exports in 2010).
“We are going to have to discuss with and seek the opinions of other countries. We don’t wish to offend anyone, least of all a country we hold in such deep regard as the United Kingdom.” Doesn’t sound much like an autocrat.
Correa told Assange in May that, “regarding the U.S., the relationship has always been of a good friendship, love, but in the framework of mutual respect and sovereignty.” He added that he would openly denounce the U.S. if it tried to breach that sovereignty. A real test of that independence may be on his doorstep.
So ironically, the burden of hypocrisy may be resting on Correa, too, if he is seen as caving to geopolitical pressures.
In any case, the stakes are high — and more complicated than the Twitter blasts of snark would indicate.
Who really knows what we would do, “in Julian Assange’s place.”
Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos.