Ecuador's free-press watchdog under assault

September 14, 2012 - 3:35 AM
Ecuador Assange Press Freedom

In this Aug. 25, 2012 photo, a TV set at a shoe shop shows President Rafael Correa talking on his weekly program "Enlace Ciudadano," or "Citizen Link," in Alangasi, Ecuador. To Correa, Australian-born Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is a truth-teller who deserves praise and protection as he knocks down the walls of government secrets. But when it comes to Ecuador's opposition media, Correa says too many journalists serve special interests and have immense, unchecked power. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Not all journalists are created equal in the eyes of Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa.

To the leftist leader, Australian-born Julian Assange is a truth-teller who deserves praise and protection as he knocks down the walls of government secrets. Correa has even offered asylum to the founder of the website Wikileaks and sheltered him for the past month inside Ecuador's Embassy in London from arrest on sex crime allegations.

Journalist Cesar Ricaurte, however, is another story for the 49-year-old president.

Correa has been fighting a running battle with Ricaurte, head of the country's main press freedom organization Fundamedios, and calling him a tool of the opposition media and the U.S. government.

Just this year, the president has used nine special government broadcasts to pre-empt all regularly scheduled TV programming to condemn Ricaurte. His alleged crime? Telling the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that Correa is a bully who tries to silence journalists he dislikes.

That disparate treatment points to what critics say is Correa's hypocrisy when it comes to press freedoms in this tiny South American country. But Correa's views on freedom of speech have far surpassed the country's borders as he allies with Assange in the face of U.S. and European pressure.

Assange's publishing of U.S. diplomatic cables delighted Correa by fortifying his claim that Washington continues to behave imperiously in the Americas. "Your WikiLeaks have made us stronger," Correa told Assange in May when the Australian ex-hacker interviewed the president for his Kremlin-funded TV program. "Welcome to the club of the persecuted."

In announcing the asylum in August, Ecuador said it had grounds to believe that Assange faced political persecution for publishing a quarter-million cables and thousands of other sensitive U.S. documents.

Assange is fighting extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning. His supporters claim the intention is to ship him to the United States to face trial.

"We haven't said that everything that Assange has done, at least I haven't said it, has been in favor of free expression," Correa said recently. "He could have committed an infraction. But he should be judged with due process."

But when it comes to Ricaurte and Ecuador's opposition media, Correa says too many journalists serve special interests and have immense, unchecked power.

Correa's press secretary, Fernando Alvarado, did not make himself available for an AP interview despite numerous requests. Alvardo has repeatedly accused journalists of being political and in June said government ministers should talk only to state-owned domestic media.

"Forget the vision of evil politicians persecuting heroic journalists, who defend freedom of expression with their lives," Correa recently told a group of international journalists based in Ecuador. "More often, it is honest politicians persecuted by media and corrupt journalists."

While Correa champions Assange's right to publish another government's secrets, his government has taken steps to make it less likely that will happen in Ecuador, in part through several laws recently passed by the ruling party-controlled National Assembly.

They include the Law of Citizen Participation, which converts freedom of the press from a human right into a state-regulated public service. An anti-monopoly law severely restricts investment in news media, and prevents media owners from holding a financial stake in other industries. A new so-called "Democracy Code" prohibits "biased" reporting of election campaigns and allows candidates to sue reporters who allegedly violate the law.

Ricaurte, who was honored in August by the Inter-American Press Association with its top press freedom prize, says the Democracy Code will make coverage of elections impossible. Presidential elections are scheduled for February, but Correa has not said whether he will run again.

Mauro Cerbino, a professor at the FLACSO university in Quito, said that Latin America's leftist governments aren't the only ones to blame for curbs on the region's press freedoms. Many news media around the region represent vested interests and often distort the truth for political ends, he said.

"An independent press doesn't exist, not from the state-government media and not from the private media because the private media have always had what we call a double dependency: political and economic power," said Cerbino.

Press freedom advocates such as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists believe that restrictions on the press in Ecuador will soon resemble those in Venezuela.

The press committee's Americas director, Carlos Lauria, said that while other popularly elected leftist-run governments have also shown intolerance, Ecuador and Venezuela are most "notorious" in "suffocating the institutions of democracy, including the press, in an attempt to control the flow of information and suppress dissent."

So far this year, the Correa government has shut down 20 TV and radio stations, most of them small and provincial, for alleged administrative transgressions. Eight were opposition stations.

Correa has repeatedly accused Ricaurte of working for the American government. While his foundation gets 15 percent of its funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, it also receives funding from donors including the U.N. agency UNESCO, the nongovernmental Panamerican Development Foundation and the Andean Community of Nations trade grouping.

Ricaurte said he gets continual threats via email and sarcastic comments posted on his website demanding a share of his alleged "million-dollar" U.S. Embassy payments.

Those threats led to fears of violence against him in June while he was waiting for a cab in Quito and was pushed violently from behind by a man who screamed: "U.S. Embassy informant! Traitor!" By the time he recovered his balance and reached for his cellphone to take a photograph, the man was gone.

Ricaurte said the special broadcasts Correa uses to denounce him are abusive. Other Latin American leftist leaders, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, have employed such broadcasts during crises. President Cristina Fernandez of Argentina uses them several times every week.

Ricaurte criticized Correa' successful criminal libel suit last year against the main opposition newspaper, El Universo, and three of its top journalists, including columnist Emilio Palacio, who repeatedly called him a dictator. Correa later forgave the paper the $42 million damages award and pardoned the journalists, but he'd made his point. Palacio was granted U.S. political asylum last week.

Now, a proposed Radio and Television Law would partition Ecuador's radio and TV broadcast spectrum into three: one-third for the state, one-third for "community media" and one-third for private companies.

Venezuela already has such an arrangement, with the "community media" almost exclusively pro-government.

Argentina's Fernandez hasn't gone that far. But a friendly Congress did enact a law designed to break up media monopolies, and journalists for Argentina's opposition media have been roughed up by pro-government demonstrators.

"Freedom of expression is very much threatened and as time goes on it is deteriorating even more rapidly," Ricaurte said.

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Associated Press writers Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, Michael Warren in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jorge Rueda in Caracas, Venezuela, and Carlos Valdez in La Paz, Bolivia, contributed to this report.