When WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sought asylum on June 19, the question many supporters asked was: “Why the Ecuadorian embassy?”
The simple answer is because the Ecuadorian government has been one of the strongest supporters of WikiLeaks, which reflects its strong stance in defence of media and information freedom.
Much has been made in the media about supposed abuses of media freedom in Ecuador.
However, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa explained Ecuador’s media policy in a recent interview with Assange on Russia Today. What his government opposes are media corporations that, through their monopoly on information, have tried to “destabilise our government to avoid any change in our region and lose the power that they have always flaunted”.
Since first being elected president in 2006, Correa — much like Assange — has faced a constant campaign of slander and misinformation, co-ordinated by the media corporations.
Only months after Correa became president, 11 big Ecuadorian daily newspapers published the same front-page editorial attacking him. This was described in a US embassy cable published by WikiLeaks as “an unprecedented example of coordinated press rebuke to a sitting president”.
In fact, while publicly criticising Correa for supposed attacks on media freedom, a US embassy cable from March 2009 acknowledged that there was truth to Correa’s claim that “the Ecuadorian media play a political role, in this case the role of the opposition”.
The reason was made clear in the cable: “Many media outlet owners come from the elite business class that feels threatened by Correa’s reform agenda, and defend their own economic interests via their outlets.”
Speaking to Assange, Correa noted that when he was first elected in 2006, five of the seven privately-owned TV channels were owned by bankers and the state owned none.
In 2008, Ecuadorians voted overwhelmingly for a new constitution. Among other things, it sought to democratise the media and ban bankers from having business interests in the media industry.
The constitution was strengthened last year. Voters backed an amendment to also ban media corporations from being able to own or have shares in business interests in other industries to avoid potential conflicts of interest in reporting news.
The government has also tried to pass a new media law that would break up the corporate media monopoly.
Under the new law, private media ownership would be restricted to 33% of all media outlets, with the state controlling a further 33% and community media having the largest share — 34%.
So far, the new law has been blocked in parliament by the right-wing opposition and vociferously denounced by the media corporations as an attack on “freedom of speech”.
Unsurprisingly, Ecuador’s media has largely failed to cover the contents of the embassy cables disclosed by WikiLeaks, particularly those that have exposed some of their own secrets.
For example, an October 2004 embassy cable revealed how media corporations had colluded to silence information after Ecuador’s banking sector collapse of 1999-2000.
At the time, a conflict broke out between two TV channels that threatened to expose the dealings of bankers linked to their rivals. To avoid escalating the conflict, a “non-aggression pact” was brokered, halting any further media investigations into the dodgy practices of these bankers.
Although initially critical of WikiLeaks, the Ecuadorian government relied in part on leaked cables for its decision to expel the US ambassador in April last year.
The next month, the Ecuadorian government announced that WikiLeaks had published about 950 cables relating to Ecuador at its request.