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Ecuador’s poor free speech record

Granting Wikileaks founder Julian Assange asylum may make Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa seem like a champion of free speech, but his record in the country shows otherwise, says Roger Noriega, former Ambassador to the Organization of American States and for Assistant Secretary of State.

“This is more than just a charitable act,” Noriega told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an interview. “I think it’s a conscious effort by Correa to strut on the world stage as some defender of free expression, when at home everyone knows that he is quite the opposite.”

Media freedom groups and outlets have criticized Correa for his poor record on press freedom and the freedom of speech as he has used government agencies and police forces to shut down media outlets and silence his opponents.

“Freedom of expression continues to be severely threatened in Ecuador,” said Daniel Calingaert, vice president of policy and external affairs at Freedom House, a human rights advocacy group. “What happens in Ecuador could have negative repercussions throughout the region, which has witnessed a rapid decline in press freedom.”

A 2011 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists said Correa’s administration brought Ecuador into a “new era of widespread repression by pre-empting private news broadcasts, enacting restrictive legal measures, smearing critics, and filing debilitating defamation lawsuits.”

Seventeen media outlets have been shut down since the beginning of the year, mostly ones critical of the government, according to Reporters Without borders.

“They’ve used police, military, regulators, and courts to occupy media outlets, to conduct raids on media outlets,” Noriega said.

In July of 2008, government officials and police officers raided two privately-run television broadcast stations that had 40 percent of the country’s news audience, then put them under state ownership.

Correa claimed the raid and subsequent confiscation was aimed at recovering money that was owed to the government by Grupo Isaías, which the two television broadcasters had ties to.

In June of this year, it was reported that six radio broadcasters and two television were shutdown over two weeks, five of them due to overdue license fees.

That same month, Correa instructed government ministers to no longer give interviews to private media outlets he deemed “corrupt.”

Further cracking down on his media critics, Correa announced in late July that he was ordering public officials not to place government advertisements at independent media outlets he classifies as “mercantilist.”

“From now on you will no longer place official advertising on the mercantilist media, because there is no reason why we, with the money of all Ecuadorians, should benefit businesses that belong to six families in this country.(…) From now on, no official advertising in the mercantilist media, to see if they engage in communication as a vocation or a business,” said Correa in a broadcast.

“They’ve also threatened any sort of media organizations with sanction, he has personally brought personal lawsuits last year against the publishers and columnist in a newspaper in Ecuador in an effort to silence it,” Noriega told the DC News Foundation.

In March 2011, Correa himself sued three executives and an editor of El Universal newspaper for libel. A decision was rendered by a judge in July, less than 24 hours after the trial began, sentencing all four men to three years in prison and $30 million in fines and an additional $10 million in fines for the newspaper.

In February of this year, the Ecuadorian Supreme Court upheld the decision, but Correa said he would forgive the fine. According to the New york Times, the defendants’ lawyers said that Correa had influenced the judges and his lawyers had written a lower court’s decision favoring the president. Correa called the decision a victory over “media dictatorship.”

“As recently as late July, they raided the offices of Vanguardia and confiscated computers and essentially silenced it, at least for a while,” Noriega said.

On July 31 of this year, government officials from the Ministry of Labor Relations raided the Quito headquarters of the magazine Vanguardia, which often covers alleged government corruption, seizing its computers and other assets for having unpaid debts and failing to hire a certain number of handicapped persons on its staff.

Correa has also exerted more control over the media by promoting legislation, which was passed in January, that would make it illegal to promote directly or indirectly the campaign of any candidate during the 90 days leading up to an election.

“If you’re running against an incumbent president and you can’t even get your name in the newspaper, the effect is pretty devastating.”

The legislation would also ban the media from transmitting or publishing any information, photos, or opinions on the electoral process during the 48 hours leading up to an election. And another provision of the legislation prevents private citizens, private companies, and non-governmental organizations from funding electoral television, radio, print, or billboards advertisements during the 90 days before an election.

“Correa retains a certain amount of popularity with this sort of using oil largess in the country, suppressing his opponents, and it will be very difficult for anybody to marshal a campaign against him,” Noriega said.

Correa’s recent decision to grant Julian Assange asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London was motivated by a willingness to defy the U.S., according to Noriega.

“It’s clear that the United States figures prominently in that decision because they have made it very clear in the published decision of Ecuador, that they are concerned that Assange might be re-extradited from Sweden to the United States,” Noriega continued.

However, Assange has not been charged in the U.S. and the White House on Sunday said that Assange’s extradition was an issue for Britain, Sweden, and Ecuador to resolve.

“Defying the United States is a way to appeal to their radical base,” Noriega said. “Correa is able to usurp some leadership role for himself, calling on the Latin left to rally to his support.”

“This sort of Latin American populism is nothing new,” Noriega concluded. “This is a new brand where they take power by elections and their intention is to hold onto power indefinitely and not be constrained by any rules of the game.”

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