Every so often, world affairs offer us paired examples—two nearly identical instances through which we can better understand the role of powerful institutions, like the media. So when Ecuador granted asylum to Australian journalist Julian Assange in mid-August, and then, two weeks later, the United States provided asylum to Ecuadorian journalist Emilio Palacio, the two cases laid bare the hypocrisy of the establishment press.
On August 16, the government of Ecuador offered WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange political asylum at its London embassy, after it appeared that fair treatment would be denied to him over his alleged sexual misconduct in Sweden—Sweden had rejected offers to question Assange in London or at the Ecuadorian embassy, providing no explanation.
Even more troublingly, Sweden refused to offer any assurance that it wouldn’t extradite Assange to the United States if he voluntarily were to go to that country; the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office, despite multiple inquiries, declined to say whether it would exercise its powers to deny a U.S. extradition request once Assange were in Sweden; and the United States gave no indication that it will not attempt to extradite Assange. These facts did not bode well for Assange, considering that Vice President Joe Biden once likened him to a “high-tech terrorist” for his work in releasing classified U.S. documents, and that Sweden previously violated international law by working with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to transfer two asylum seekers suspected of terrorism to Egypt, where they were later tortured.
The New York Times has not focused on such issues. Instead, like other media organizations on both sides of the Atlantic, the newspaper has taken the opportunity to highlight Ecuador’s double standards. In an August 16 news article, the Times wrote, “It struck many as odd that Mr. Assange, who shot to fame as a fighter for media freedom, chose Ecuador as a potential refuge. [President Rafael] Correa has presided over a crackdown on journalists there.” Indeed, the Times has often seized upon the case of the Guayaquil-based El Universo newspaper, whose three directors and editorial page editor were sued by Correa, and at one point faced fines of $40 million and three-year prison terms for criminal libel. (Correa had previously indicated his willingness to drop the suit if El Universo offered an unconditional apology; when the men’s sentences were upheld, Correa pardoned them of all convictions.)
In Britain, The Economist considered Correa “a glasshouse dweller throw[ing] stones” for his “lack of regard for freedom of speech at home.” His decision to grant Assange asylum was either "diplomatic or lunatic"; after all, Sweden is “a country whose respect for human rights is beyond serious reproach,” said the magazine, conveniently disregarding Sweden’s violation of the United Nations’ Convention Against Torture. Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley, writing for the BBC, admitted that “it is true that the U.S. Department of Justice continues an investigation that presumably includes Mr. Assange,” but criticized Assange for ignoring the fact that Ecuador has also practiced “media intimidation.”
In the United States, The Los Angeles Times echoed such arguments, observing that “critics noted the irony of Assange appealing for help to a man accused of cracking down on journalists.” Reuters quoted Freedom House, an organization largely funded by the U.S. government, which condemned Assange for “aligning himself with one of the greatest adversaries of freedom of the press in South America.” Renee Montagne, the host of National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” also underscored this apparent contradiction: “It seems rather a great irony that it’s Ecuador granting Julian Assange asylum, when Ecuador does not have a really stellar reputation for the way it treats journalism and freedom of speech.” And The Miami Herald ran an August 27 op-ed that heaped scorn on the Correa government: “Ecuador judging the performance of anybody else’s legal system is a bit like the Octomom offering classes on abstinence.”
So on August 30, when the United States granted asylum to El Universo’s editorial page editor Emilio Palacio, who fled to Miami last year after being sued by Correa, the news media’s reactions were staggering in their hypocrisy. In covering the story, neither Reuters nor the BBC noted the irony in Palacio’s choice to seek asylum within a country whose record on press freedom includes the six-year, due-process-free imprisonment of Al Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Hajj at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. No media outlet quoted critics of the U.S. government over its relentless prosecution of whistleblowers like the National Security Agency’s Thomas Drake, who revealed the waste of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to The Baltimore Sun. No news agency found it “ironic” or even “odd” that the U.S. government granted Palacio asylum, even though in 2011, it pressured Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh to continue to imprison journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye, who reported on the U.S. cluster bombing of dozens of civilians in al-Majalah, Yemen. No newspaper accused Palacio of hypocrisy in accepting asylum in the United States, where police have repeatedly assaulted and jailed journalists covering Occupy protests.
Even more noteworthy, perhaps, are the media’s contrasting portrayals of Assange and Palacio’s journalistic merits. Assange has been responsible for providing the public with evidence that U.S. helicopter pilots gunned down over a dozen Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters journalists; that Secretary of State Clinton ordered U.S. diplomats to collect private information and biometric data on key UN officials; that Yemen deceitfully took responsibility for missile attacks that the United States actually carried out; and that the Obama administration pressured Spain to terminate its torture probe of Bush officials. In response to these and many other WikiLeaks revelations of wrongdoing and dishonesty at the highest levels of government, the U.S. media either yawned or gushed.
Palacio, on the other hand, is the author of an example of abject journalistic malfeasance. His 2011 El Universo op-ed falsely accused “the Dictator,” President Correa, of committing “crimes against humanity” by purportedly ordering troops to fire at a “hospital full of civilians and innocent people” during a coup attempt against him in 2010. Palacio didn’t provide a shred of evidence for his claims. But the U.S. media have scrubbed the baselessness of Palacio’s charges from their coverage of his asylum approval—Reuters said that Palacio simply “criticized [Correa’s] actions,” and NPR stations around the country aired a flattering interview with Palacio’s lawyer, Sandra Grossman, who said there was “much debate and disagreement in Ecuador about what really happened that day, so my client addressed this event in his article and criticized the president for his handling of the revolt.” Regarding U.S. approval of Palacio’s asylum request, Grossman added, “I see President Correa’s actions as very contradictory, considering how he treats journalists in his own country. And maybe the United States is using this opportunity to make that point as well.” A point was made, although not the one Palacio’s attorney had in mind.
Despite running libelous commentary, El Universo has become the darling around which the U.S. media have rallied. A reflection of the dishonorable conventions of the mainstream press can be witnessed in this year’s Maria Moors Cabot Prizes, the oldest awards in international journalism, which are administered by the preeminent Columbia School of Journalism. Next month, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger will present the Cabot certificate of citation to El Universo, honoring the paper for having “courageously defended” the right “to speak out for a democratic society.” Apparently, allowing Palacio’s blatant falsehoods to be printed on its pages does not preclude El Universo from receiving a prestigious journalism award.
Incidentally, the gold medalists of the 74th annual Cabot Prize for outstanding reporting on Latin America and the Caribbean include Juan Forero. Forero’s $5,000 award was announced just days after The Washington Post published his piece on threats to Latin American democracy, which scrupulously excluded any mention of the recent overthrows of left-leaning, democratically elected leaders by reactionary elites in Paraguay and Honduras. But Forero’s omissions did not prevent the Cabot Prizes’ official press release from describing him as “an equal opportunity reporter” whose work uncovers “abuses by the powerful across all ideological scales.”
As the cases of Assange, Palacio and the award-winning El Universo demonstrate, the establishment press doesn’t simply observe hypocrisy and irony—it embodies them.
[Updated on 9/6 at 4 p.m.]
Keane Bhatt is an activist in Washington, D.C. He has worked in the United States and Latin America on a variety of campaigns related to community development and social justice. His analyses and opinions have appeared in a range of outlets, including NPR, The Nation, The St. Petersburg Times, CNN En Español, Truthout, and Upside Down World. He is the author of the NACLA blog “Manufacturing Contempt,” which critically analyzes the U.S. press and its portrayal of the hemisphere. Follow his blog on Twitter @KeaneBhatt.