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The Rights Groups that Lost the Plot on Ecuador and Julian Assange
Free speech advocates should defend WikiLeaks' founder from US spying charges, not invent a media crackdown in Ecuador
Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, remains trapped in the Ecuadorean embassy in London since 19 June, as he awaits the government of Ecuador's decision on whether to grant him political asylum. It is interesting, if rather aggravating, to see how people who are supposed to be concerned with human rights and freedom of expression have reacted to this story.
Although Assange has not been charged with any crime, the Swedish government has requested his extradition to Sweden for questioning. For more than 19 months now, the Swedish government has refused to explain why he could not be questioned in the UK. Former Stockholm chief district prosecutor Sven-Erik Alhem testified that the decision of the Swedish government to extradite Assange is "unreasonable and unprofessional, as well as unfair and disproportionate", because he can be easily questioned in the UK.
Of course, it's not hard to figure out why Assange's enemies want him in Sweden: he would be thrown in jail and would have limited access to the media, and judicial proceedings would be conducted in secret. But most importantly, it would be much easier to get him extradited to the United States. Here in the US, there is an ongoing criminal investigation of WikiLeaks; and according to leaked emails from the private intelligence agency Stratfor, a criminal indictment for Assange has already been prepared. Powerful political figures such as Dianne Feinstein, Democratic chair of the US Senate intelligence committee, have called for his prosecution under the Espionage Act, which carries the death penalty.
For these reasons and many more, it is quite likely that the government of Ecuador will decide that Assange has a well-founded fear of political persecution, and grant him political asylum. Yet, surprisingly and shamefully, organizations whose profession it is to defend human rights and press freedoms have not only remained silent on the question of Assange's right to asylum, or Sweden's political persecution of a journalist, but have, instead, attacked Ecuador. For example, José Miguel Vivanco, director the Americas Watch division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), has stated:
"I think this is ironic that you have a journalist, or an activist, seeking political asylum from a government that has – after Cuba – the poorest record of free speech in the region, and the practice of persecuting local journalists when the government is upset by their opinions or their research."
Much of the media ran with this, perhaps not knowing a great deal about the media in Ecuador, and not realizing that any of the other independent democracies in South America would also grant asylum to Assange. When Assange was first arrested in 2010, then President Lula da Silva of Brazil denounced the arrest as "an attack on freedom of expression". And he criticized other governments for not defending Assange. If it was clear to Lula and other independent governments that Assange was politically persecuted then, it is even more obvious now.
The problem is that Sweden does not have an independent foreign policy from the United States, which is why the Swedish government won't accept Assange's offer to come to Sweden if they would promise not to extradite him to the US. Sweden collaborated with the US in turning over two Egyptians to the CIA's "rendition" program, by which they were taken to Egypt and tortured. The UN found Sweden to have violated the global ban on torture for its role in this crime.
One would expect better from a human rights organization that is supposed to be independent of any government's political agenda. But Vivanco's attack on Ecuador is inexcusable. As anyone who is familiar with the Ecuadoran media knows, it is uncensored and more oppositional with respect to the government than the US media is.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has mounted a similar political campaign against Ecuador, falsely charging:
"Correa's administration has led Ecuador into an era of widespread repression by systematically filing defamation lawsuits and smearing critics."
What HRW and CPJ are doing is taking advantage of the fact that few people outside of Ecuador have any idea what goes on there. They then seize upon certain events to convey a completely false impression of the state of press freedom there.
To offer an analogy, it so happens that France and Germany have laws that make it a crime, punishable by fines and imprisonment, to lie about the Holocaust, and have recently prosecuted people under these laws. Personally, I agree with a number of scholars who see these laws as an infringement on freedom of expression and believe they should be repealed.
But I would not try to pretend that the people who have been prosecuted under these laws – like the extreme rightwing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen of France – are themselves champions of free speech. Nor would I try to create the impression that such laws, or their enforcement, are part of a generalized "crackdown" on political opposition; or that France and Germany are countries where the freedom of expression is under attack from the government.
If I were stupid enough to do so, nobody would believe me – because France and Germany are big, rich countries that are much better known to the world than Ecuador.
Let's look at one of the major cases that groups like Americas Watch and CPJ have complained most about. Last February, the nation's highest court upheld a criminal libel conviction against the daily El Universo, with three directors and an opinion editor sentenced to three years in prison, and $40m in damages. President Correa announced a pardon for the convictions 13 days later – so no one was punished.
As noted above, I am against criminal libel laws and would agree with criticism advocating the repeal of such laws. But to say that this case represents a "crackdown" on freedom of expression is more than an exaggeration. These people were convicted of libel because they told very big lies in print, falsely accusing Correa of crimes against humanity. Under Ecuadorian law, he can – like any other citizen – sue them for libel, and the court can and did find them guilty. Just as Le Pen in France was found guilty of having "denied a crime against humanity and was complicit in justifying war crimes.''
Groups like Americas Watch and CPJ are seriously misrepresenting what is going on in Ecuador. Rather than being a heroic battle for freedom of expression against a government that is trying to "silence critics", it is a struggle between two political actors. One political actor is the major media, whose unelected owners and their allies use their control of information to advance the interests of the wealth and power that used to rule the country; on the other side is a democratic government that is seeking to carry out its reform program, for which it was elected.
In this context, it is difficult to take seriously these groups' complaints that President Correa's public criticism of the media is a human rights violation.
While I would not defend all of the government's actions in its battle against a hostile, politicized media, I think human rights organizations that grossly exaggerate and misrepresent what is going on in Ecuador undermine their own credibility – even if they can get away with it in the mainstream US media. It is equally disturbing that they cannot find the courage – as more independent human rights defenders, such as the Center for Constitutional Rights, have done – to defend a journalist who is currently being persecuted by the government of the United States and its allies.