Latin America & Caribbean

Ecuadoreans relaxed about 'fugitive haven' label

Supporters of Julian Assange outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London (16 June 2013)

As members of the world's media gather in Quito, trying (and failing) to outwit the elusive fugitive whistleblower, Edward Snowden, there is an overwhelming sense of deja vu in Ecuador.

We've been here before. In some cases, in the very same hotel rooms.

The last time the global press pack descended on Ecuador, me included, was in August when the founder of the Wikileaks website, Julian Assange, was granted asylum by the Ecuadorean Government.

At one point it looked like he might try to make a midnight flight to Quito from the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

But the British Government refused him safe passage out of the country and placed police officers outside the embassy building. A year on he remains holed up in London.

The prospect of Edward Snowden still being inside the transit area of Moscow's airport in a year's time, shaving in the toilet sinks and living off peanuts from the vending machines, doubtless sends shivers down the spines of Russian diplomats.

But a protracted stand-off seems far less likely in this instance.

Political football?

Image caption Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been living inside the Ecuadorean embassy in London for a year

In Quito, people are waiting for him with the same bemusement they had last year at finding their small Andean nation thrust into a global diplomatic maelstrom over the leaking of US intelligence secrets.

"Ecuador's turning into a popular destination!" joked one woman outside a coffee shop in Quito.

"Ecuador is perhaps a bit freer to receive people who are being pursued by their own governments," chimed in another.

But not everyone views the case with such indifference.

"The government should take a decision based on the best interests of the country," says Jaime Mantilla, director of the Ecuadorean daily, Hoy. "We can't support actions, which damage the country's image abroad solely to inflate the image of the current leader [President Rafael Correa]."

During the height of the Assange affair in August, I managed to sit down with President Correa in Quito to discuss this suggestion that he was using the case to build up a sort of David and Goliath image that would play well domestically, particularly ahead of a presidential election. He dismissed the idea.

"Yes, I'm sure we planned all of this," he answered with good-natured sarcasm.

"From the Wikileaks revelations to Julian Assange turning up at our embassy to Great Britain's clumsy diplomacy [for apparently threatening to storm the embassy building]. So there you have your answer."

He went on to compare the British Government's decision to agree to extradite Julian Assange with its decision, taken under the Blair government, not to extradite the former Chilean military leader, Augusto Pinochet on grounds of ill health.

"There is clearly a big margin for discretion so why are they insisting on extradition in this instance? That's the question the world is asking."

'Media lynching'

However, the image of Ecuador as a champion of free speech and human rights jars with Mr Mantilla, who is also the current President of the Inter-American Press Society.

"It seems both frustrating and paradoxical that while [the government] defends the freedom of expression in the case of Assange and now of Snowden, it has simultaneously passed a law which destroys that same freedom of expression in this country," he said.

The specific law the newspaper owner is referring to is the Organic Communication Law which introduces stringent new regulations on the press in Ecuador.

Most controversially, it includes a clause to tackle what the government refers to as "media lynching".

Image caption It is not clear what the Ecuadorean government plans to do with Edward Snowden in case he arrives

Under the law, the extended or repeated "discrediting" of a person or government agency can lead to large fines.

Critics say the agency created to oversee the new law - which will in essence decide the difference between normal and healthy criticism of government policy and "media lynching" - is made up entirely of Mr Correa's allies.

Meanwhile, the waiting for Snowden continues.

From my hotel room window, I can see the lights and satellite dishes of a rival broadcaster on their balcony transmitting essentially the same message as the rest of us: it's not clear if or when the former intelligence contractor will make it to Ecuador and the government haven't decided what to do with him even if he does.