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Press weigh in after Ecuador grants Assange asylum

Video by Bénédicte PAVIOT

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2012-08-17

Newspapers in Britain and Sweden slammed Ecuador’s decision to offer WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange asylum, while the press in the small South American country blasted London’s suggestion it may enter its embassy to arrest the wanted man.

Ecuador’s decision to grant political asylum to Julian Assange on Thursday has escalated an already tense standoff between the small South American country and Britain. As Assange continued his almost two-month hideout in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, newspapers in the concerned countries weighed in on the diplomatic row.

The press in Britain and Sweden, whose authorities want the WikiLeaks founder over sex crime allegations, have come down hard on Quito, saying it was deforming international diplomacy. The leading dailies in Ecuador retorted that the decision to offer Assange asylum came as no surprise and instead lashed out at UK officials for threatening to invade Ecuador’s embassy.

‘Prostitutes diplomatic status’

According to an editorial by the Guardian, Assange should not be considered a refugee based on the United Nations’ definition. The British daily said it was wrong for Assange to ask for asylum as a refugee, and wrong for Ecuador to treat him as one.

The newspaper also called into question Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa’s true motivation for protecting Assange, saying “Ecuador has found a way to tweak the tail of the imperialist lion, but the law is not on Ecuador's side” in reference to the nationalist Correa’s recurring criticism of the United States for meddling in Latin America’s affairs and Britain for refusing to negotiate with Argentina over the disputed Falkland islands.

"Can we be civilised about this?"
Cartoon artist Steven Bell pokes fun at British Foreign Secretary William Hague in The Guardian.

Nevertheless, the Guardian also found fault with the British government’s decision to issue the Ecuadorian embassy with a letter on Thursday warning police may enter the premises by force to arrest Assange. It said Britain should refrain from such an action and instead, “concentrate on being patient and doing the right thing.”

The Times, another leading UK daily, also warned its government about its threat to invade Ecuador’s embassy, saying that could create a dangerous “precedent for the debasing” of one of its own embassies in the future.

However, the British daily had harsh words for the Ecuadorian authorities, saying Assange had chosen bad company when reaching out to Correa, who the newspaper said was responsible for closing television stations and jailing newspaper executives since he had come to power.

Arguing that Sweden did not have ulterior motives for detaining Assange - other than to question him over sex crime charges – the Times put Quito on alert: “If Ecuador wishes to become the sort of country that prostitutes diplomatic status in a circus defence of common criminality, it should be condemned as one and treated as one.”

Citing the reasons why his country had extended asylum to Assange, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño said the freedom of information activist would probably be extradited to the United States, where he risked being unfairly tried as an enemy spy – a charge that could carry the death penalty.

In a similar tone to that of the Times, the Telegraph blasted both Ecuador and Assange. In an editorial titled Ecuador’s foolish gesture, the paper said Britain “need take no lessons on human rights from Ecuador… Above all, we must not let Mr Assange force us into postures that ruin this country’s good name.”

‘Unacceptable threat’

Reactions in Ecuador and throughout Latin America seemed to be motivated as much by Assange’s unique asylum case, as by the sentiment that Ecuador had not relented to pressure from powerful Western countries. Ecuador’s Patiño tweeted Friday: “I loved this message from a young Bolivian woman: My heart is exploding with pride!! Long live free and sovereign South America!! Long live Ecuador!!”

In an almost celebratory note titled “The goal against England”, Argentinian daily Pagina 12 said Ecuador’s government had provided refuge to Assange “despite the imperial threat of the British lion.” Argentina, who fought a war with England in 1982 over the Falkland Islands, continues to have tense diplomatic relations with the European power.

"ASYLUM OR GOLDEN CAGE?"
Assange: "I freed myself of the English, but now they won't let me leave!" - Cartoon artist Roque muses over Julian Assange's situation in London in El Comercio daily.

Leading dailies in Ecuador were more guarded than Patiño or their British counterparts in offering their assessment of the controversial decision. Nevertheless, they felt insulted that London threatened to ignore international law by storming their embassy.

“London’s threat is unacceptable and as such unleashed reactions outside the British embassy in Quito,” the conservative daily El Comercio wrote, adding that Patiño’s statement was foreseeable, but remained a major event.”

The Ecuadorian daily said “Ecuador’s argument is based on the right to protect human rights and the life of Assange if he were to be extradited to the United States,” but in explicit criticism of Correa’s government, reminded readers that Correa blocked the asylum of a newspaper executive, Carlos Perez, who tried to flee from Ecuador to Panama earlier this year.

The left-leaning Ecuadorian Hoy newspaper also labelled Britain’s invasion threat “unacceptable”, saying it went against legal tradition and international treaties. It said some of the arguments used by Patiño to bestow amnesty on Assange were weak, but in the end gave the foreign minister the benefit of the doubt: “The institution of asylum is defined by the State that grants it.”

It added that Assange still needed to respond to questions over sex crimes allegedly committed in Sweden, but questioned Swedish authorities’ efforts to investigate the charges. “Ecuador is aware that Swedish prosecutors have displayed contradictory attitudes,” Hoy said in reference to invitations by both Britain and Ecuador for Swedish investigators to question Assange in London – invitations Sweden has declined.

‘A thorn in the side of the US’

Newspapers in Sweden also reacted to news of Assange’s asylum in Ecuador by hitting back at Quito. “Ecuador’s invoking freedom of expression in Assange’s defense rings false,” read the editorial in the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, arguing that the Correa administration had a poor record when it came to press freedom.

“Rafael Correa is one of Hugo Chávez' ideological soul mates. To [Correa] asylum to Assange is not about justice and freedom of speech, but about being a thorn in the side of the US,” the daily added.

Another leading daily, the Göteborgs-Posten, said that while Assange’s supporters cheered him outside the Ecuadorian embassy, he was the “big loser” in the affair. “He has gone from being a hero, to a mere justice-ducking fraud, whose supporters are a thinning crowd of conspiracy theorists,” the Swedish newspaper said.

Its' editorial also cast doubt on Ecuador’s suggestion that Sweden was ready to hand over Assange to US authorities: “The allegations that a weak Sweden would not be able to resist pressure from the United States for extradition is nonsense. Assange can not be transferred on any matter without Britain's approval.”

Date created : 2012-08-17

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