When Ecuador granted asylum to Assange in mid-2012, Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher accused Assange of “hypocrisy” for accepting asylum from President Rafael Correa, “one of the world’s leading oppressors of free speech”.
Annabel Crabb joined in, writing in the SMH: “A gazillion Assange Twitter fans [hailed] Ecuador and its president, Rafael Correa, as a hero of international free speech and human rights.
“Correa is the same guy who last year jailed a journalist and three executives from the newspaper El Universal [sic] for saying nasty things about him …[and] is expected to soon extradite the Belorussian anti-corruption campaigner Alexander Barankov to a messy fate in his country of birth … Ecuador: champion of free speech. The mind boggles.”
The only factual errors in Crabb's rant are that Barankov was never extradited (but granted asylum), the journalist and executives mentioned were never jailed and the newspaper is not called El Universal!
It might read like a snide put-down of poorer nations that are somehow less capable of “democracy”, but all SMH did was read from an extensive, Washington-penned playbook on how to denounce the Latin American left.
The El Universo Case
The US press had been practising their denunciations of late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s so-called “dictatorship” in Venezuela for years before turning their attention to Correa. After granting Assange asylum, Correa went to the top of the hit-list.
The Washington Post, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, The Economist, and Time each ran nearly identical articles on Correa’s supposed repression of free media.
And each placed the same victim at centre-stage: El Universo.
The saga stems from an article published by El Universo on February 5, 2011, written by Emilio Palacio and titled “No to the Lies”. The paper was then sued for libel by Correa.
The article gave Palacio’s account of the dramatic events on September 30, 2010, when Correa was held hostage by rebellious police inside a military hospital for nine hours. The events were considered to be an attempted coup d’etat by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which unites 12 South American countries.
Though there was a great deal of improvisation involved, what remains clear is that police occupied parliament; airports in Quito and Guayaquil were seized by sections of the military; protesters and loyal soldiers had to rescue Correa; and the car Correa escaped in from the military hospital was riddled with bullets.
In Palacio’s account in El Universo, on the other hand, he held Correa responsible for the bloodshed, which included eight deaths and over 200 wounded nationwide. He blamed Correa for ordering the gunfire on the hospital where he was held captive, calling it a crime of “lesa” humanity: the term is a racially-inflected insult from the Andes meaning crude, stupid and inferior.
The entire article reads as ludicrously offensive. Palacio referred to Correa as “the Dictator” nine times and called his government a “dictatorship” twice. This is permissible under Ecuadorian law.
Some dictator ― Correa had the highest approval rating of any Latin American leader last year and again this year. He was re-elected in February with 58% of the vote.
Palacio and El Universo were unsurprisingly convicted of libel for the article. Yet libel in Ecuador is still a criminal offence, such that Palacio and two directors of the newspapers were sentenced to three years jail (by a court, not Correa).
In fact, Correa pardoned the men ― no journalist has been jailed during his seven-year government. However, the law (which predates Correa) urgently needs reform.
The El Universo episode has been employed as the lynch-pin to the claims Correa is repressing free media in Ecuador. Yet in citing this case, the US and Australian media either omit or misrepresent the coup context and simply ignore the fact that the accused were never jailed.
The SMH omitted mention of the coup entirely, as did Time. The NYT referred to it as “a police protest”, as did the Christian Science Monitor. The Washington Post mentioned “a police uprising”. The Economist decided it was “a police mutiny”.
Always hilarious and disturbing in equal measure, Murdoch’s revenue-negative propaganda-sheet The Australian reported on the coup attempt, but blamed it on Ecuador’s indigenous peoples.
New media law
The campaign was struck up again in June, when Correa said his government would consider an asylum request to Edward Snowden after his revelations of the US’s worldwide surveillance, international espionage and cyber warfare.
This time, the allegations of hypocrisy were based on Ecuador’s new communications law that passed on June 21.
The Washington Post referred to it as “the gag law”. They criticised “the double standard” of Correa, an “autocratic leader … known for prosecution of his own country’s journalists”.
Time said the law made Correa’s record on freedom of expression “as poor as that of Russian President Vladimir Putin”. It claimed the law “slashes the number of private outlets, greatly increases state-controlled broadcasting and makes Correa the nation’s de facto media censor”.
Christian Science Monitor claimed the new law “restricts what journalists can cover about [election] candidates … Critics say it is to [Correa’s] benefit.”
The reality? The new law mandates that corporate media be reduced to a third of the market. Public media will make up one-third and non-profit, community media will make up the other third. This means the media will no longer be almost totally dominated by corporate interests and popular sectors will gain previously closed-off access to the media via community outlets.
The law also bans “media lynching” ― in other words, concerted campaigns of character assassination ― along with any overt political stance, especially in election reporting.
The authority charged with making these judgments is not simply an office of the presidency, as suggested by Time and The Economist. It includes representatives from provincial governments, cultural groups and universities.
Free and independent media?
The most striking aspect of the campaign against Ecuador is that the corporate-owned “free and independent” media these outlets wish to defend can be seen to work in unison to generate timely propaganda against “official enemies” ― such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Assange and Snowden.
This is why the discourse of “free press” against “autocratic governments” needs to be questioned.
Corporations are just as willing to prosecute libel suits as governments. Broadcasters can be, and often are, threatened with the cancellation of lucrative advertising contracts for showing critical news and documentaries.
In Australia for instance, GetUp recently had a paid advertisement detailing Woolworths’ ownership of poker machines pulled from Channel Seven without explanation.
In its reporting on Snowden, Time wrote that Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua ― the left-wing alliance supporting Assange and Snowden ― “sport some of Latin America’s more checkered human-rights records”. In reality, this claim holds no weight unless all of the US’s allies in the region are excluded.
After the US-backed coup in Honduras in 2009, 25 journalists were killed (up to mid-2012). In Mexico, 87 journalists have been killed in the past decade.
In Colombia, the US and NATO’s key regional ally, police and paramilitary violence against journalists, community leaders and trade unionists is widespread.
The purpose of this media campaign is clearly to discredit the left-wing political projects in Latin America. In its June 24 editorial, The Washington Post referred to Correa as “the autocratic leader of tiny, impoverished Ecuador”.
About 27% of Ecuadorians live in poverty, down from 37% when Correa came to power. In the US, on the other hand, 16% of people live in poverty, along with 20% of children.
This is despite the fact that, relative to population, the US economy is 10 times larger than Ecuador’s. Which country, then, is in a position to criticise the other on poverty?
The US criticised Ecuador for granting asylum to Assange, but it has refused to extradite the Isaias brothers to Ecuador. They are finance-industry cronies who stole millions from Ecuadorian bank depositors and then fled to Miami.
The US also gave asylum to Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles, right-wing Cuban terrorists who planted a bomb on a Cuban passenger aircraft. It exploded in-flight, killing 73 people.
Who is in a position to criticise the other’s asylum policies? Who is in a position to talk about supporting terrorists?
Unfortunately, the real story behind Snowden has often been lost amidst the noise. The false debate going on is whether state surveillance is justified in the effort to prevent terrorist attacks.
The debate we should be having is how to avoid the global surveillance system that is being used to fight environmental and anti-war activists, and to facilitate the looting of taxpayers and pension funds by the finance industry, which controls the highest levels of EU and US government.
Activists everywhere should check out Prism-break.org and Mayfirst.org to see how you can make your online work secure.
[Christian Tym is a PhD student researching Political and Medical Anthropology in Ecuador.]