When somebody, someday, opens a hall of fame dedicated to great moments in international diplomacy, the competition for space will be fierce. I’m sure there will be an exhibit on Vlad Tepes, the 15th-century Romanian prince who, when a visiting delegation of Turkish diplomats refused to take off their hats (only in the presence of the sultan, they said) had his men nail the hats to their heads. Then there’s Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, who stayed in the White House during secret World War II negotiations with Franklin Roosevelt. White House servants who unpacked his suitcase reported to the president that it was stuffed with bread, sausage and a pistol that Molotov kept under his pillow at night.
But my favorite guy of this century is Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño, who earlier this month announced that his country was granting political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Assange was facing extradition from Great Britain to Sweden, where he has been accused of sexual assault by two of his former supporters, but he’s now safely inside Ecuador’s embassy in London.
Assange “could be the victim of political persecution because of his decisive defense of the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press,” said Patiño, managing to keep a totally straight face during a performance that will be studied for decades to come by diplomats and improv comedians.
Leave aside, for the moment, the fact that Ecuador judging the performance of anybody else’s legal system is a bit like the Octomom offering classes on abstinence. “Corruption, inefficiency, and political influence have plagued the Ecuadoran judiciary for many years,” declared Human Rights Watch in its latest report on the country.
Instead, I’d like to suggest a question for diplomats in those totalitarian hellholes of Sweden and Great Britain to address to Patiño and his boss, Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa: If you guys think freedom of the press is so important, why don’t you practice a little bit of it at home?
Under Correa’s erratic left-wing rule, Ecuador has become a serious contender for a gold medal in press-bashing at the next Authoritarian Olympics. His government has shut down 17 opposition news media this year, including eight in a two-week-long temper tantrum around the end of July.
When Correa isn’t closing broadcast outlets and newspapers, he’s bullying them into bankruptcy. Most notoriously, he filed a criminal libel suit against El Universo, Ecuador’s largest newspaper, after the paper’s coverage of a 2010 police mutiny over wages angered him. (No need to sue radio or TV stations for their stories: During the mutiny, Correa declared a national state of emergency and forced all the nation’s broadcasters to carry only the signal of the government’s official TV station.)
Correa won the suit after the first four judges were dismissed and a temporary magistrate took over. After just 33 hours on the case, the judge, evidently channeling the legal mind of Oliver Wendell Holmes and the typing speed of Clark Kent, issued a 156-page ruling that awarded Correa $42 million and sentenced several of the newspaper’s executives to three years in prison. An independent forensic analysis of the magistrate’s computer showed that his decision had actually been written by Correa’s attorney, a fact confirmed by one of the judges earlier booted from the case; but the Ecuadorean judiciary has the intellectual courage not to let facts get in the way of its verdicts.
The libel suit against El Universo, just one of many filed against opposition news media by Correa and his government flunkies, was ultimately dismissed when the president concluded he had thrown a sufficient scare into the paper. (Indeed he had — one of El Universo’s directors fled to Panama, which granted him political asylum.)
But some of the dogs Correa unleashes on the press are less easily recalled. He routinely appears on state-owned TV waving photos of reporters and columnists he dislikes, cursing them as “corrupt” or “savage beasts” or, in one case, “a horrible fat woman,” and urging his supporters: “React!” They do. The Ecuadorean press freedom group Fundamedios reported 151 attacks on journalists during 2010 alone. That’s freedom of the press in Ecuador, Mr. Assange: the freedom to be beaten, bullied and bankrupted. Good luck with your new pal — you’ll need it.