Ecuador′s game with Assange and free speech | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 20.08.2014
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Ecuador's game with Assange and free speech

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange created some confusion when he announced that he wanted to leave the Ecuadorian Embassy in London after two years. His statement has revealed Quito's tense relationship with free speech.

"Ecuador's government hasn't got a thing to do with the Assange case," said Winfried Weck, head of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation's office in Ecuador's capital, Quito. "It's all about posturing and showing the US and the Europeans that they won't allow meddling, and that they view their national identity and sovereignty as their biggest asset."

At the beginning of September, Weck plans to shut down the foundation's office in Ecuador after more than 50 years. The reason: Since 2011, Ecuador has reserved the right not only to examine political foundations and NGOs' annual plans but also to change them.

"That was a condition we could no longer accept," said Weck. "We're closing the office for political reasons and looking for other opportunities in the country." The other three German foundations with offices in Ecuador - Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the Hanns Seidel Foundation - plan to continue their work.

The Konrad Adenauer Foundation isn't alone in its criticism of the Ecuadorian government. Press freedom advocate group Reporters Without Borders is also worried about political freedom in the country.

Julian Assange at a London press conference Photo: REUTERS/John Stillwell/pool

Assange has lived in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for the last two years

"The protection of foreign whistleblowers should not overshadow press freedom in Ecuador for President Rafael Correa," said the organization's German director Christian Mihr back in June 2013.

Correa should deal with his country's own issues, according to Mihr. The president has signed a new media law giving the state far-reaching rights to interfere in the work of journalists, a possible gateway to censorship. In Reporters Without Borders' latest World Press Freedom Index, Ecuador is ranked 95 out of a total of 180 countries.

'Where is the free press?'

Correa, meanwhile, appears to be unimpressed by the criticism. In fact, he recently disparaged the international press for not campaigning for the release of WikiLeaks whistleblower Julian Assange.

"Assange has been at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for the last two years. Where is the free and independent press? What would happen if this were to happen in Ecuador?" he asked his followers on Twitter.

Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino, who had traveled to London for the two-year anniversary of Assange's stay at the embassy, also tweeted his support. "I have arrived in London on the occasion of the second anniversary of Assange's asylum. How long will we have to wait until the press demands his freedom?"

Jonas Wolff, a Latin America expert with the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), said that despite Correa's support for Assange, there is no common political policy between the two. Though both are fighting against big media companies, he said that in contrast to the open platform of WikiLeaks, the Ecuadorian president does not support small independent media in his own country. Instead, according to Wolff, "he threatens them.

Hurdles for asylum seekers

Rafael Correa waving Photo: Claudio Reyes/AFP/Getty Images

Correa has been president of Ecuador since 2007

Wolff called Monday's joint press conference by Assange and Ecuador's foreign minister at the embassy in London a political and strategic move. "The government in Ecuador wants to use the Assange case to portray itself as a global champion of human rights and asylum," he said.

But Ecuador is increasingly losing its pioneering role in asylum policy. According to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, Ecuador's recognition rate has "declined dramatically" since the adoption of the new asylum law in May 2012. "There is a big gap between the requirements laid down in the constitution and the actual access of refugees to their rights," the agency said.

And yet, Ecuador currently has the largest refugee population in Latin America. According to the UNHCR, approximately 123,000 refugees live in the country, with 98 percent of them coming from neighboring Colombia. But whether Assange will ever able to claim asylum in Ecuador is questionable. His recent announcement that he wants to leave the embassy seems to have been more of a wish than a reality.

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