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A year ago, Ecuador allowed fugitive WikiLeaker Julian Assange to seek refuge in its London embassy. Now its new media law tightens the vice on journalists critical of the South American country’s government.
Editor's note: Since this published, WikiLeaks has said it's helping US national security leaker Edward Snowden request asylum from Ecuador.
LIMA, Peru — As Julian Assange today completes a full year living in Ecuador’s London embassy, back in Quito, President Rafael Correa has found an original way to celebrate — hammering yet another nail into the coffin of his country’s free press.
Last Friday, Ecuador’s congress, dominated by Correa’s leftist Proud and Sovereign Fatherland grouping, passed a new media law that's been universally condemned by human rights and journalism groups.
Vaguely written and granting the government sweeping powers to regulate the media, the law is even reported to further criminalize precisely the kind of leaking of official information that fugitive WikiLeaks founder Assange champions.
More from GlobalPost: An interview with Julian Assange
It would also stop serious reporting on government abuses in its tracks, experts say. If the United States had similar laws, they warn, Watergate, PRISM and numerous other beltway scandals might never have come to light.
In Ecuador, recent such scandals include Correa’s cousin, appointed head of the country’s central bank, lying about having an economics degree, and the president’s brother receiving multimillion-dollar government contracts under his sibling’s nose.
Correa, who remains massively popular after winning a third term in February, accuses Ecuador’s dwindling private media of representing a corrupt elite. He has claimed the new law will guarantee “genuine freedom of expression that respects the rights of all citizens.”
But few outside the country are buying that.
“This law is yet another effort by President Correa to go after the independent media,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, said in a statement.
“The provisions for censorship and criminal prosecutions of journalists are clear attempts to silence criticism.”
Daniel Montalvo, a politics professor at Quito’s San Francisco University, added: “This law is not about protecting citizens. It is about protecting the government.”
The clause that has attracted the most attention establishes a new crime, “media lynching.” This occurs when journalists repeat the same allegations multiple times.
“If the same allegation is published a couple of times, and it is decided that that constitutes ‘media lynching’ then you cannot repeat it again,” said Cesar Ricaurte, of Quito-based media think tank Fundamedios.
“That makes it impossible to report on the kind of government scandal in which details come out bit by bit over several days or weeks.”
The media lynching clause is also so poorly drafted, Ricaurte adds, that a reporter’s actual committing of the crime may ultimately depend on whether other journalists cover the same story.
It’s just one of several provisions that, experts say, effectively establish prior censorship, stopping journalists from even publishing information rather than sanctioning them after it’s gone public.
“This law marks a return to the beginning of the 20th century in Latin America when strongmen passed ‘print laws’ to silence the press,” Ricaurte said.
This is just the latest chapter in what rights groups say is a sustained government assault on media freedom since Correa was elected president in 2006.
More from GlobalPost: Ecuador libel case pits Correa against the press
They include his use of antiquated criminal libel legislation to threaten journalists with jail and multimillion-dollar fines that would shutter even the country’s wealthiest TV stations.
Meanwhile, Correa has beefed up the government’s own media empire. According to Ricaurte, there was a single media outlet, a radio station, belonging to the state before Correa took power. Now, there are 320 publications, and radio and TV channels.
But we are not talking about NPR or the BBC. Instead, Ecuador’s public outlets report directly to government ministers and churn out highly biased coverage.
“You have a huge state media apparatus putting out what is basically government propaganda while the number of critical voices in the media has been dropping,” Ricaurte said. “You can now count them on the fingers of one hand.”
And it’s not just the media that’s been on the wrong end of Correa’s clampdown on dissent. The combative, 50-year-old, University of Illinois-trained economist has a knack for unearthing enemies.
They’ve included environmentalists and indigenous groups within Ecuador. And, of course, Washington, and its alleged persecution of Assange, who claims there is a sealed indictment against him in the United States.
Indeed, Correa has been accused of criminalizing protest and using trumped-up charges to jail citizens exercising their democratic right to express disagreements with his policies.
All this makes Ecuador a rather curious choice of refuge for Assange, the self-styled freedom of information champion.
That the WikiLeaks founder may have been desperate as he walked into Ecuador's Embassy in the UK to elude questioning in Sweden on alleged sex crimes — and the purported threat of extradition to the United States for publishing leaked state secrets — seems probable.
But as he continues to wage his international campaign against official cover-ups from inside a cramped room in central London, critics may wonder what it will take for Assange to finally break his silence regarding his host’s systematic bullying of Ecuador’s independent journalists.