Rafael Correa, the Press, and Whistleblowers

Once again, we are witnessing a growing frustration with “tiny” Ecuador. The United States government is clearly not happy with what would be the latest diplomatic slap in the face coming from the South American country, i.e. the pending arrival of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in the coming days. Beyond the United States’ government though, the US press corps are also seemingly up in arms. Why are they so angry? Well, it appears that they are indignant over the perceived hypocrisy of President Rafael Correa.

Claims of Hypocrisy

According to an article from The Atlantic (and another similar one from NPR here), the Ecuadorian leader “has created a safe space for foreigners like Assange — and now possibly Snowden –[but] he doesn’t do the same for dissenters within his own country.” News agencies like NBC News and The Atlantic think this is “interesting” and want to know ‘Why Ecuador?’ Such inquiries naturally turn to the NGOs, who are also less than pleased with this unruly little country. Freedom House, the Committee to Protect Journalists and others are upset that this very week, the one-year anniversary of Assange being holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London (and the same week that the Snowden asylum request is being reviewed), the Ecuadorian National Assembly has passed a Communications Bill that detractors claim is a major blow to a free press.

For several of the opposition figures and US-based observers, Ecuador’s new media legislation has sealed the deal on the stasi-like state that they imply or openly charge Correa has been dreaming about for years. In other words, transparency advocates like Assange and Snowden are compromising their credibility by associating with the Correa government. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the right-wing terrorist supporter/US Congresswoman representing Miami, has been busy tweeting as much. The Ecuadorian government, however, asserts that the bill is meant to place more media power in the hands of public groups and move away from privately owned media monopolies.

Meanwhile, the Council of Hemispheric Relations, Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Heritage Foundation all say that Ecuador must be punished for this latest insult to the US government. James Roberts of Heritagelashed out at the South American leader on June 24, writing in the National Review Online:

“Rafael Correa has demonstrated a blatant disregard for international standards of justice. That kind of conduct may not be surprising from a man who seeks to don the mantle of Chávez, but it should not be rewarded with trade preferences.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how a figure like Correa would have been dealt with a few decades back, but it appears that the more heavy-handed approach is not really possible at the moment, much to the dismay of the powerful and connected.

Returning to the issue of freedom, has the defiant president of Ecuador used the National Assembly to pass a law that NPR, The Atlantic and others tell us will be used to make the country less transparent and more hostile to journalists who only wish to be free to monitor the government and act as a check on state power? Well, let’s hold off on the most absurd elements of irony here for a moment and address the issue at hand.

About a Coup

It should certainly not be regarded as a good thing if the case was simply a cut-and-dry example of authoritarian overreach. Freedom of the press, as we are learning with the Snowden case, has seemingly never before been so important, or so contentious for that matter. However, the Ecuadorian issue is not so simple and it was certainly complicated after a day of crisis nearly three years earlier when factions of the National Police and armed forces attacked the president of Ecuador on September 30, 2010. The event was widely regarded as a coup attempt. What exactly went down is still somewhat unclear. There was a dramatic showdown between Correa himself and police officers that were angered by a supposed attempt to cut their pay. What is for certain, though, is that it was a countrywide, well-coordinated attempt to shut down the National Assembly, the two major airports in Guayaquil and Quito and eventually a hospital where the president was being treated for wounds. Furthermore, the plotters were also attacking journalists throughout the country, and most of these were pro-government reporters working for public media outlets.

The opposition press has taken an active role in attempts to discredit Correa since he first ran for president. He has elaborated on his views of the press and they are certainly not very congenial. In 2012, during a public TV interview in Spain, Correa said, “one of the main problems around the world is that there are private networks in the communication business, for-profit businesses providing public information, which is very important for society. It is a fundamental contradiction.”

One of the issues that NGOs and journalists have cited in their litany of complaints about Ecuador’s endangered freedom of the press actually stems from the 2010 police and military uprising. During the chaos that ensued during the alleged coup attempt, one reporter from the paper of record in Guayaquil took the opportunity to claim that Correa had ordered police to fire on a crowd of innocent onlookers caught up in the melee, presumably aiming to provoke anti-government sentiments. The claim turned out to be completely unsubstantiated. The government fined the journalist and his paper El Universo some $40 million for defamation but later withdrew the charges. Consider what might have happened in the US if the Los Angeles Times or Washington Post would have falsely claimed that Barack Obama had personally ordered military or police forces to fire on a crowd of protesters and innocent people were injured as a result somewhere in Washington, D.C It would be difficult to imagine a reporter and his editors ever committing such a stupid move, but if they had, there would have been some serious consequences. Alas, this is not really too shocking in the context of a sensationalist Latin American press.

Televised and Untelevised Revolutions

That dramatic Ecuadorian affair is reminiscent of the 2003 documentary film The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,directed by the Irish filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha Ó Briai. The pair happened to be in Caracas, Venezuela during one of several 21st century Latin American coup attempts thus far. The film provided a key glimpse into the nature of media in the region, so often dominated by pro-US elites. It showed the efforts expended by private media outlets to incite anger and get people out in the streets in order to challenge the power of anti-Washington governments.

Right up until his death, it was a sort of requirement for US and European governments, journalists and NGOs to claim that Hugo Chávez Frías was a dictator for not renewing the license of RCTV. The outlet, owned by Marcel Granier, was one of the most virulent anti-government television stations operating on the state-owned airwaves and the Venezuelan government eventually forced them over to cable television. The criticism of the allegedly authoritarian leader served to cover up the very questionable coverage by corporate media. Indeed, one anti-Chávez commentator honestly noted six months ago that the idea that Chavez ever controlled the Venezuelan media was a myth. He pointed out that back in April 2002,

“Coup plotters collaborated with Venezuelan media figures before the coup. The media refused to show statements by officials condemning the coup d’état. When the coup d’état failed, the private Venezuelan networks refused to broadcast the news that Chávez had returned to power.”

“Correa is a Very Smart Guy”[1]

The Venezuelan experience did not escape the attention of the rather astute and confident Correa. Neither did the fact that, only 15 months prior to the attempted coup in Ecuador, there was a successful coup in Honduras, removing the president of that country, Manuel Zelaya, by gunpoint in the middle of the night. This was considered to be illegal by President Obama himself, although soon after the offending and illegitimate new government of Roberto Micheletti was accepted by his administration and is still backed to this day by Washington (under current President Porfirio Lobo). This support comes despite a terrible record of human rights abuses and, yes, a genuine threat to a the flow of crucial information. Journalists have been censored and intimidated since the 2009 coup in Tegucigalpa and, what’s worse, have frequently been murdered by the government and its allies. Honduras consistently ranks as one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. The double standards are blatant and many would like to see the opinion-makers from the States take a closer look in the mirror.


Popular Support and Popular Media

Anyone who would have spent some time watching The Revolution Will Not Be Televised would have also learned what President Hugo Chávez, then only a mere three years into his presidency, meant to the millions of impoverished and the historically marginalized majority in Venezuela. This did not stop the State Department and its allies from focusing on how best to rid Venezuela of its president. (Incidentally, while doing an internship for the State Department in the fall of 2001, I was invited by the Public Diplomacy department to work on ideas on how to get the message out to Venezuelan people about the dangerous nature of President Chávez.) That coup attempt failed, as the one in Ecuador would eight and a half years later, mainly because the people staunchly backed the president of the Republic.

At the time of the 2002 coup attempt, Chávez was wildly popular and the same was true of Rafael Correa in September 2010; two weeks before the coup attempt, polls found that he had the support of 67% of respondents in the capital Quito and nearly 60% in his native Guayaquil, the second largest city. Correa actually got a nice bump in approval ratings after the whole affair and, more recently, he has just won a major reelection bid in February of this year precisely because he has brought political and economic stability to the country of 15 million people. Poverty has been reduced dramatically since Correa took office. Public works projects have resulted in huge improvements to the country’s infrastructure and, more importantly, there is a sense of independence from the yoke of neocolonialism so prevalent in years past.

It appears that Correa and the government may have some good reasons to increase the influence of publicly owned media companies and challenge private corporate media elites. This foray into press control is a dangerous game, however, especially since there appears to be some genuine concerns from indigenous and environmental activists who oppose the government’s expansive plans for an economy based primarily on extraction. Often, those who disagree with Correa are dismissed as childish Marxists, or more alarmingly, terrorists. There must be more attempts to reach a humane and considerate consensus on some of these crucial issues, especially as the Chinese enter the fray in search of resources to fuel their economic needs and a gateway into South America (and Ecuador recovers from two major oil spills so far this year). There are clearly opportunities, but also responsibilities to the environment and the people that live outside of the metropoles.

With such considerations in mind, is there a reason to agree with the opinion-makers in the US who would dub Correa as a dictator, increasingly revealing his dangerous nature?

One of Correa’s main antagonists is Martin Pallares, a senior political editor at one of the major national newspapers El Comercio. Pallares recently said, “I think freedom of press in Ecuador is gravely threatened by a system managed by the government. They have the objective to discredit the media, affect their credibility. And they also want to characterize the press like political adversaries and destabilization agents.” In a very important sense, the media should or even must by its nature act like political adversaries. Destabilization is a different story however. In the case of the coups in Latin America, there is typically interference by Western powers, especially the United States, and this often serves to destabilize governments Washington deems troublesome (through the funding of local civil society groups via the National Endowment for Democracy, USAID and, of course, the CIA). The message is often that these groups are just trying to further democratic causes, but this belies an obvious mission by colluding corporate and government powers that is evident throughout the many anti-democratic interventions and support of such leaders in postwar history (from Iran in 1953 to both the Maldives and Paraguay in 2012).

Felonious Journalists

Returning to the issue of irony, here you have several of the leading news outlets in the US reporting on the lack of media freedom in Ecuador, yet ignoring the major issues raised by leakers, journalists, and publishers such as Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden. In effect, these major corporate outlets are legitimizing or even themselves guilty of demonization of these individuals who have put everything on the line to get the public talking about some serious violations of human rights and privacy, and the dangerous encroachment of the corporate state. One has to wonder if the fact that many of these commentators themselves are getting paid major corporate money has anything to do with their take on the Snowden/Ecuador affair.

If you watched the Sunday morning talk show highlights, you should be able to draw your own conclusion. One jaw-dropping example of the corporate media’s lack of objectivity in this discussion was the meticulously staged interviewthat George Stephanopoulos did with General Keith Alexander, the man who has access to the personal data of nearly anyone he so chooses to target. There were several moments in which the responses to some of the host’s softball questions were so weak (lots of babbling about dots) that it was unbelievable that Stephanopoulos didn’t pounce. Yet, why he did not or would not do such a thing is evident considering the establishment’s treatment of the recently departed journalist Michael Hastings, loathed for his refusal to play footsie with the biggest fish in the game. That sort of behavior simply cannot be tolerated.

Also on the talk show rounds, there was David Gregory’s aggressive and ethically revealing accusation thrown at guest Glenn Greenwald in the form of a ‘tough question’. Gregory actually asked Greenwald why he shouldn’t be charged with a crime, and The Guardian columnist sharply replied that it was “pretty extraordinary that anybody who would call themselves a journalist would publicly muse about whether or not other journalists should be charged with felonies”, with no evidence of wrongdoing. But there you have the attitude that the establishment needs to maintain close ties; it mustn’t be overly adversarial and never threaten the stability of the government or a particular administration, even if that means sitting on stories such as the spying on US citizens, like The New York Times was guilty of in 2004 when it delayed publication of a story on government surveillance after being approached by the Bush Administration.

Indy (media) to the Rescue

Modern professional journalism often leaves us wanting for more. Thankfully, we have the independent media outlets that are often way ahead on exposing some of the more heinous crimes of the times. This helps millions around the world identify the mantras of the media elite in the United States: 1) the corporate bias is never to be exposed or acknowledged; 2) it should never be overly adversarial to the government; and 3) a “journalist” should always attempt to divert from important issues that arise from whistleblowing by attacking the whistleblower’s character.

Of course, all of these conventions go out the window when it comes to perceived enemies, in which case the media, NGOs, corporations and the US government always work together in delegitimization and destabilization efforts. Snowden has followed Assange’s lead and is headed to Ecuador not simply because, as The Atlantic has suggested, both parties feel persecuted or they want to ‘poke the US in the eye’. The reason why Ecuador has offered asylum and why Snowden was seeking it from them is because they believe that there is hope in the future, beyond the grossly excessive power of the United States and its presumed worldwide dominion. The whistleblowers and the Ecuadorian leaders, like countless others around the world, believe that the only hopeful way forward is to shatter the antiquated and dangerous notions inherent in establishment journalism, corporate supremacy, and US hegemony. I guess it is no surprise that the privileged classes vehemently disagree.

Adam Chimienti is a teacher and a doctoral student originally from New York. He can be reached at ajchimienti@gmail.com.

Adam Chimienti is a teacher and a doctoral student originally from New York. He can be reached at ajchimienti@gmail.com.