What awaits Julian Assange if he reaches Ecuador? Dateline finds a president on a crusade against the media and questions the country's asylum record.
We start tonight with the flight and plight of Julian Assange, still holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. On the face of it - an unusual country to be offering refuge to a journalist. Ecuador's President, Rafael Correa, seems to spend a lot of his energy damning and threatening private media outlets in his country, who he believes obviously represent the business giants of South America. Amos Roberts went to Ecuador to investigate the plight of journalists there and uncovered the extraordinary story of Ecuador's other Julian Assange.
REPORTER: Amos Roberts
This is the man dubbed Ecuador's Julian Assange, walking free from a Quito jail after 84 days behind bars.
TV NEWS REPORTER (Translation): Do you think it is fair you've been jailed for so long?
ALIAKSANDR BARANKOV (Translation): I can't comment.
Aliaksandr Barankov used to be a financial crimes investigator in Belarus, a former Soviet republic notorious for human rights abuses. Like Assange, he says he uncovered government secrets that put him in danger. Aliaksandr Barankov fled to Ecuador in 2009, after learning of financial corruption linked to Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko. He thought he was safe, when Ecuador granted him asylum.
ALIAKSANDR BARANKOV: You are so beautiful.
But in June this year, out of the blue, Barankov was arrested by police outside his apartment.
ALIAKSANDR BARANKOV: They asked for my documents. I said, "I have my documents in my apartment, please let me show to you that I'm a refugee here." He said, "œNo, no, no, you are no more a refugee in Ecuador. You have to go with us."
It was perhaps no coincidence that three weeks later, Lukashenko rolled into town, to sign agreements with Ecuador's President Rafael Correa.
TV NEWS REPORTER (Translation): Aliaksandr Barankov is accused of bribery and fraud in his country. Dubbed Belarus's Julian Assange, his fate is also up to Ecuador.
Thanks to the publicity around his case, Aliaksandr Barankov is once again a free man. But he's still shaken. He says extradition to Belarus would amount to a death sentence.
ALIAKSANDR BARANKOV: I'm scared of my - really, of my life. Of my life. To kill somebody in a Belarussian jail, it is very easy.
His story shows that asylum in Ecuador is no guarantee of safety.
REPORTER: Why would the Government want to kill you?
ALIAKSANDR BARANKOV: Because they know that I know.
JULIAN ASSANGE: This week, I'm joined by the President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa.
Two weeks before Barankov's arrest, Correa was getting chummy with Julian Assange during an interview for 'Russia Today'. Russia's English language news channel?
RAFAEL CORREA, PRESIDENT OF ECUADOR: Where are you, in England?
JULIAN ASSANGE: I'm in England under house arrest for 500 days.
RAFAEL CORREA: 500 days?
JULIAN ASSANGE: With no charge.
RAFAEL CORREA: OK.
Aliaksandr Barankov was still in jail when Ecuador's Foreign Minister, Ricardo Patino, made his historic announcement.
RICARDO PATINO, ECUADOR'S FOREIGN MINISTER (Translation): The government of Ecuador, faithful to its tradition of protecting those seeking refuge on its territory or in its diplomatic missions, has decided to grant diplomatic asylum; to the citizen Julian Assange.
Journalists in Ecuador were cynical. Why was the government protecting Assange at the same time as it sought to strip Barankov of his refugee status?
ALIAKSANDR BARANKOV: When some newspapers start to print my situation here, many, many people with who I was in jail, they say, "You have to say just in court that you are the brother of Assange, you will be free!".
By offering Assange asylum, Rafael Correa has been criticised for more than one double standard. A charismatic and popular president, he's won two elections, and done much to help Ecuador's poor. But although Correa basks in public support, he's gone to war with the country's media.
RAFAEL CORREA (Translation): Don't be so filthy, this is a piece of dirt. We beat the crap out of them. Some mass media are like vultures.
I feel repugnance. Some mass media are cavemen. Corrupt people.
You rude - cowards - Rag like - you pack of hounds.
You evil press. You liars - cynical people - homeland opponents.
All these rags. You plot against me - filthy things.
How disgusting. You hungry dogs. There's so much garbage.
These insults from Correa's weekly television broadcasts were compiled by Fundamedios, an independent organisation monitoring media freedom in Ecuador.
RAFAEL CORREA (Translation): Don't be deceived by these shameless people.
Little wonder Correa's government is now accused of hypocrisy.
REPORTER: What did you think when you heard Ecuador's Foreign Minister announce that Julian Assange would be given asylum here?
JANETH HINOSTROZA (Translation): What makes me laugh, who granted him political asylum, because they can't defend, on the one hand this;this superhero of transparency and freedom of speech, while in their own country they do the exact opposite of what Julian Assange fights for.
Janeth Hinostroza presents La Manana, a hard-hitting morning current affairs show on commercial broadcaster Teleamazonas.
JANETH HINOSTROZA (Translation): Good morning friends. Welcome to La Manana - 24 horas.
This morning, she's interviewing the Auditor General about 40kg of cocaine Italian police found inside Ecuador's diplomatic bag in January. She has to be careful. If Janeth Hinostroza or her guest says something the government disagrees with, this is what can happen.
JANETH HINOSTROZA (Translation): We now have a national statement ordered by the government. Let's hear it.
By law, the government in Ecuador can interrupt any television or radio broadcast with its own message. This one's taking aim at an interview Janeth Hinostroza ran with opposition politician Garo Lara the previous week.
GOVERNMENT STATEMENT (Translation): Is Lara appearing for free on Hinostroza's program? Enough of these lies, this is the true Galo Lara, the politician who turned lies and deception into a lifestyle. Lies!
JANETH HINOSTROZA (Translation): I cannot believe what I just heard. The government shows none of the documentation presented to the National Assembly. But it is important I do read these documents. I do analyse them. I won't be manipulated, much less accept money or charge a fee for interviews.
Fundamedios monitors TV and radio for these government messages. It has counted 1,340 of them in the past five years, totalling around 9,000 minutes.
CESAR RICAURTE (Translation): They are not tools used by the government in the public interest, for issues related to - let's say; the progress of public matters. Rather, they are another tool to exert pressure on and harass journalists.
Fundamedios director Cesar Ricaurte, should know, as he is a frequent target. When he complained about harassment of the media to the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights, the government responded by attacking Fundamedios.
GOVERNMENT STATEMENT (Translation): It calls itself independent but it is accountable to numerous companies, from banks to other media outlets with various ties as well as right-wing political fronts in the USA.
CESAR RICAURTE (Translation): Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders; they have highlighted that freedom of speech in Ecuador is becoming the worst in Latin America. This is serious.
There are few media outlets in Ecuador that have felt the pressure as keenly as the newspaper 'El Universo'. Editor Gustavo Cortez is a frequent target of Correa's name-and-shame campaign.
RAFAEL CORREA (Translation): He is sinister, that guy, a hater. A man of ill faith. He is the editor, Gustavo Cortez. Put him on the screen for people to see, we will respond. Enough! There is a limit. Show your face. This is the man.
REPORTER: Is there anything in tomorrow's newspaper that will make the president angry?
GUSTAVO CORTEZ, EDITOR: Yes.
Last year, President Correa threatened to destroy the paper using Ecuador's archaic 'desacato' or disrespect laws, a kind a criminal libel that protects public officials from insult.
It was a provocative column about this dramatic event that so enraged him. Held in a hospital by mutinous police in 2010, the president announced a coup was underway and called on the army to rescue him. The operation was broadcast live on prime-time television.
Emilio Palacio's column, called 'No to Lies' accused the president of crimes against humanity for ordering soldiers to fire upon the hospital. Correa sued Emilio Palacio and the paper's owners for $80 million US. Director and part-owner, Carlos Perez, says the president is a serial litigant.
CARLOS PEREZ, JOURNALIST: He once said that everybody in Ecuador should sue El Universo - so he wanted to sue. I think he believes that everybody should sue everybody all the time.
REPORTER: Was it ever a real concern that you could actually lose the paper because of this, the paper that you have inherited through your family?
CARLOS PEREZ: Yes. Correa said all the time what he was going to do with the money.
REPORTER: So he was already telling people how he was going to spend the money that he was going to make by bankrupting you?
CARLOS PEREZ: Yes. And he laughed about it.
PRESIDENT SUPPORTERS (Translation): There they are! The ones who screw up the nation!
The atmosphere in and out of court was hostile. Supporters of the president jeered, and even attacked the defendants as they arrived.
CARLOS PEREZ (Translation): From the start the court was totally on the President's side. That really sped things up. The President often said he held all the power in Ecuador including the justice system. He said this in court to intimidate the judges.
The president was awarded $40 million US in damages, the defendants were also sentenced to three years in prison. Columnist Emilio Palacio had already fled to the United States. Now Carlos Perez did exactly what Julian Assange would later do in London. He sought asylum in another country's embassy - in this case, the embassy of Panama.
REPORTER: Why did you seek asylum in Panama's embassy?
CARLOS PEREZ: So that I had to be protected by another government.
REPORTER: That is a pretty dramatic step isn't it?
CARLOS PEREZ: Very dramatic.
Two weeks after the verdict, Correa was magnanimous, pardoning 'El Universo' for its journalistic sins.
RAFAEL CORREA (Translation): I decided with family and friends and colleagues; to pardon the accused and grant remission of the sentences they deserved. We forgive but we don't forget..
REPORTER: How did you feel when the president pardoned you?
CARLOS PEREZ (Translation): I found it ridiculous, there was not much courage in it, it was like a show. He loves to make people suffer that way.
Correa has launched more than 30 lawsuits against the media, and closed 17 media outlets this year. But the president insists he is just fighting irresponsible, inaccurate and biased reporting. This is something Julian Assange asked him about during the interview on 'Russia Today'.
JULIAN ASSANGE: President Correa, as you know, for many years, I have been fighting a fight for freedom of expression. How is it that your reforms will not lead to the suppression of true information?
RAFAEL CORREA (Translation): Let's not fool ourselves, let's get rid of these fool stereotypes, depicting wicked governments, persecuting saint like and courageous journalists and news outlets.. Often Julian, it is the other way around. These people disguised as journalists are trying to do politics, to destabilise our governments so that no change takes place in our region for fear of losing the power they've always flaunted about.
So why did Ecuador grant asylum to Assange? Journalists like Janeth Hinostroza say it was a PR exercise, to diffuse international criticism of Correa's media crackdown.
JANETH HINOSTROZA (Translation): it is a political move, cleverly executed by Ecuador. It is a blow to the US and the First World, Europe, which has put him on the map.
In the end, it was the media pointing out government hypocrisy that secured freedom for Belarussian dissident Aliaksandr Barankov, although he was too frightened to say much.
ALIAKSANDR BARANKOV: Now, it is diplomatic. No more politics for me now, please.
But in the current climate, holding the government to account is getting harder. According to Fundamedios director, Cesar Ricaurte, journalists in Ecuador are less and less likely to speak out for fear of the consequences.
CESAR RICAURTE (Translation): In Ecuador, we have gone from the "œchilling effect" to the "œfrozen effect". The media, journalists;.. run the risk of starting a process of self-censorship.
JANETH HINOSTROZA: I cannot say that I'm not scared. Of course, I'm scared. I try not to shut up. But, you know, sometimes, it is not possible. I have to. Because - not because of me, but because of my family.
CESAR RICAURTE (Translation): I am sure that if Mr Assange was Ecuadorian or lived in Ecuador he would be in prison by now, serving a sentence, or he would be seeking asylum in another embassy because he would be persecuted by the government. Certainly, Ecuadorian "œAssanges" have it very hard under Correa's administration.
Original Music Composed by VICKI HANSEN
Additional footage courtesy of Russia Today, Teleamazonas and RTV Ecuador
11th September 2012