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Ecuador: Snowden would be protected on our soil

But the South American nation is no bastion of free speech. Its ranking on press freedom is going from bad to worse.

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Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, right, greets passersby from the balcony of the presidential palace during the weekly, The Change of the Guard, in Quito, Ecuador, Monday. Reactions were split in Ecuador today over news Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who is wanted on espionage charges by the US, had requested asylum from the South American nation.

Dolores Ochoa/AP

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Reactions were split in Ecuador today over news Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who is wanted on espionage charges by the US, had requested asylum from the South American nation.

For supporters of leftist President Rafael Correa, recently reelected in a landslide victory, there was immense pride that Ecuador was once more demonstrating its credentials for "protecting freedom and fighting imperialism," following its decision to grant asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange one year ago.

"We do not just protect the rights of Ecuadoreans but the universal rights of all citizens of the world, we are so happy the world can see this," said Congressman Bairon Valle.

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For others, such comments were further proof of government hypocrisy, coming soon after the passing of a sweeping new media law allowing even greater government control of an already restricted press.

According to press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders, the new law contains good principles but attempts to enforce them with "questionable or dangerous provisions" that fail to outline the criteria for which news reports will be considered acceptable, and hand the government too much power. Ecuador was ranked 119 out of 179 countries in its 2013 World Press Freedom Index, slipping 15 places from its position the previous year.

Saving Snowden from persecution?

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At a press conference in a Vietnam hotel this morning, Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño compared Mr. Snowden's case to the "persecution" of soldier Bradley Manning, accused of passing thousands of classified US documents to anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

"We will take a decision in due time…. Human rights principles will always be placed above any other interest," said the minister.

The comments followed a dramatic day of developments Sunday as it emerged Snowden had managed to leave Hong Kong on a commercial flight to Russia with the help of WikiLeaks' legal team, despite reportedly having had his US passport revoked.

"WikiLeaks has assisted Mr. Snowden's political asylum in a democratic nation," said the group on Twitter, later releasing a statement elaborating, "He is bound for the Republic of Ecuador." Minister Patiño confirmed that Ecuador had received an asylum request, and the country's ambassador to Russia, Patricio Chavez, reportedly met Snowden at a hotel in Moscow.

Russian media reported Sunday that Snowden was expected to fly to Venezuela via Cuba this morning, but at the time of publication he was believed to still be in Russia.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has just marked the one year anniversary of his stay at the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he has sought refuge from deportation to Sweden where he faces questioning over sexual assault allegations that he says are part of a plot to extradite him to the US. The UK has refused to allow him safe passage to the South American nation, insisting that if he sets foot outside the embassy he will be arrested.

Mr. Assange claimed Sunday that WikiLeaks had worked with Snowden to get him a special refugee travel document from Ecuador which allowed him to leave Hong Kong, accompanied by members of the website's legal team. 

Ecuador does have an extradition treaty with the US, but it does not apply to people charged with political crimes. Assange – should the US instigate criminal proceedings against him – would likely be exempt, and Ecuador may argue Snowden should also be protected on the same grounds.

Correa as anti-imperialist

Assange's asylum bid propelled the small Latin American nation into the global spotlight and allowed President Correa, who has styled himself as an anti-imperialist crusader, to boast of Ecuador's determination to protect fundamental rights from threatening Western superpowers. Snowden will provide yet more welcome publicity.

But critics accuse him of hypocritical opportunism, pointing to the stifling of rights within Ecuador itself – most notably the threatening and curtailment of the press, members of which Correa has called "rabid dogs" and "assassins with ink."

Press freedom groups fear harassment of journalists will get even worse following the approval of a media law earlier this month that will create a government watchdog to regulate newspaper and television content.

Dr. Blasco Peñaherrera Padilla, Ecuador's vice president between 1984 and 1988 with the conservative Social Christian Party, said, "This law will without doubt eliminate any investigative journalism that seeks to uncover official wrongdoing, and it is simply ridiculous that a government that has just imposed it will then try to justify the possible asylum of a citizen accused of grave crimes against US public security as a defense of free speech."

Mark Weisbrot, an analyst at the think tank Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, says claims of media restriction are exaggerated. "I'm not defending everything Correa has done but there are criminal libel laws just as strict in France and Germany, but if I accused France of trying to suppress dissent no one would take me seriously," he says. "If you've been to Ecuador you know there is a free press where you see more fierce criticism of the government than you do here in the US."

Almost any country in South America would have accepted Assange's asylum request as it was "clear-cut," says Weisbrot, and he expected Ecuador would soon approve Snowden's.

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