WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange’s successful attempt to seek asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London has once again thrown the secretive leaking organisation into the spotlight, as Assange clearly intended.
Speaking yesterday from the first floor balcony of the London embassy, Assange did not mention the reason that his extradition from the UK has been sought by Sweden – allegations of rape from two female WikiLeaks volunteers – rather, he focused on what he sees as the US government’s persecution of his organisation.
The US government risks "dragging us all into a dangerous and repressive world in which journalists fall silent under the fear of prosecution and citizens must whisper in the dark," Assange said. He called for the country to “renounce its witch hung against WikiLeaks” and to “pledge before the world that it will not pursue journalists for shining a light on the secret crimes of the powerful.”
Ecuador has attempted to seize the moral high ground, arguing that its decision to help Assange is a way to protect freedom of speech. However, given that Ecuador’s government has come under considerable criticism from international and local organisations for its press freedom record, the credibility of this claim is in doubt.
President Rafael Correa seems keen to highlight the case, but as the Guardian reported, a columnist writing in the opposition newspaper El Comercio suggested that in the long term the row may count against Correa as it is drawing attention to the Ecuadorian government’s hostility to the independent press.
As reported in May, Correa of Ecuador launched another attack on the “corrupt” private press, publically tearing up a copy of newspaper La Hora and calling for Ecuadorians to boycott the non-state media. Correa has referred to journalists as “imbecile,” “stupid,” “ink-stained hitmen” and “mafiosos,” according to a WAN-IFRA Report on Press Freedom in Ecuador published in January 2012.
As the Guardian argues, Assange’s present conduct could be in fact seriously damage WikiLeaks’ efforts: although many of the leaker’s supporters will stand by its founder at any cost, others will be concerned by the lengths to which he will go to avoid questioning. “The valuable service performed by Mr Assange at WikiLeaks is a different issue from the serious accusations facing him in Sweden,” a Guardian editorial points out. “Conflating the two may provide a rhetorical rush, as it did in Knightsbridge on Sunday; but over the longer term it badly damages the reputation of WikiLeaks and does Mr Assange's case no practical good.”