QUITO — Ecuador may well grant WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s request for political asylum, analysts say, in a bid by President Rafael Correa to needle the United States and boost his image at home.
The 40-year-old Australian turned up Tuesday at Ecuador’s embassy in London, seeking asylum after Britain’s Supreme Court turned down a last ditch appeal of his extradition to Sweden over alleged sex crimes.
The move should not have come as a huge surprise, because Ecuador’s leftist government had offered Assange residency in 2010 in sympathy after WikiLeaks’ disclosure of a trove of classified US documents.
Although Quito backtracked on the residency offer, Assange appeared to hit it off with Correa in April in a talk show interview aired by Russia Today, a television network that backs Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Correa welcomed Assange to the “club of the persecuted” in the interview, and Assange reciprocated by expressing support for Correa in his bitter battles with Ecuador’s privately owned media.
Correa told Assange he was fighting media monopolies in Ecuador and politicians masquerading as journalists who sought to “destabilize” his government to “prevent any type of change and lose the power they always had.”
Assange, in turn, accused some private media of censoring for “political reasons” the trove of US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, nearly 1,000 of which dealt with Ecuador, according to the country’s foreign minister.
After the interview, Correa referred to Assange as a man who “has been persecuted, smeared and lynched” in the media.
Analysts here say that coming to Assange’s rescue might help Correa offset the storm of international criticism over his campaign against the opposition media in Ecuador.
“This convergence of interests could be useful for (Correa) in order to present a more balanced image,” said Marco Romero, an international affairs specialist at the Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar.
Mauro Cerbino, a communications expert at the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty (FLACSO), said that Assange’s request “could be used by the Ecuadoran government for an offensive that would restore certain legitimacy in the international arena, where things have not gone well.”
“This serves to legitimize a government as protecting freedom of expression, while in reality it is taking on more radical positions every day,” Cerbino said.
The president’s fight with the media peaked last year when an Ecuadoran court ruled in favor of a “defamatory libel” suit Correa had filed over a column published in a Quito newspaper that accused him of crimes against humanity during a police mutiny.
The court sentenced three top executives of the Quito daily El Universal, and a former editorial page editor to three years in prison. Correa was awarded $40 million in damages.
Rights groups — including Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders and the Inter American Press Association — called the ruling a blow to freedom of speech in Ecuador.
In February, Correa pardoned the executives and voided the monetary damages, but the criticism has barely subsided: according to the Ecuadoran NGO Fundamedios, the government’s persecution of the opposition press continues.
Correa, who is likely to run for reelection in early 2013, ordered his ministers last week to give no further interviews to news organizations critical of his government — a move the UN Special Rapporteur for the right to freedom of opinion, Frank La Rue, described as a “mechanism of censorship.”