Amnesty International has issued a statement protesting the charges brought against Edward Snowden under the US Espionage Act. “No one should be charged under any law for disclosing information of human rights violations by the US government,” said Amnesty’s international law director Widney Brown. “Such disclosures are protected under the rights to information and freedom of expression.” Snowden (now without a valid passport) is apparently at the Moscow airport, awaiting a flight to (depending on the account) Ecuador, Venezuela or Cuba. There is a delicious irony to countries usually portrayed as authoritarian offering refuge while the ostensibly “democratic” United States is thusly chastised. “Regardless of where Snowden ends up he has the right to seek asylum,” said Brown. “Even if such a claim failed, no country can return a person to another country where there is a substantial risk of ill-treatment. His forced transfer to the USA would put him at great risk of human rights violations and must be challenged.”
We understand that Snowden is not obliged to take refuge only in countries with pristine rights records. But there is a danger to taking too much glee in this—especially when Snowden’s WikiLeaks press people announce that he will seek asylum in a “democratic nation.” The double standard that holds the US as a paragon of “democracy” certainly doesn’t mean that China and Russia and even Ecuador, Venezuela and Cuba aren’t (to varying degrees) authoritarian. Snowden is at risk of becoming a propaganda pawn for censorious regimes.
This is well illustrated by reactions to the new media law just passed in Ecuador. The headline on Left Green Weekly reads “Ecuador: Assembly passes law democratising media.” The Organic Communications Law was approved by the National Assembly in “an atmosphere of festive social mobilisation.” It limits the number of media outlets that can be owned by a single individual and allocates radio frequencies by equal thirds for public, private and community stations. It defines “social communication as a public service that must be provided with responsibility and quality of content” and establishes “ultimate media liability for content they publish.”
Contrast the coverage at the Committee to Protect Journalists. Their headline reads “CPJ dismayed by approval of media law in Ecuador.” CPJ protests: “The law establishes regulation of editorial content and gives authorities the power to impose arbitrary sanctions and censor the press.” It adds that President Rafel Correa’s administration “has engaged in widespread repression of the media, pre-empting private news broadcasts, enacting restrictive legal measures, smearing critics, and filing debilitating defamation lawsuits.”
We recognize that redistribution of media conglomerate assets can be a democratization, as noted in regard to similar trends in Venezuela. But you have to be a fool not to recognize the threat of granting any government the power to regulate media content. This is a temptation to abuse even by the most popular and progressive leaders. And as populists go, Rafael Correa is a pretty bogus one.
In its 2013 annual Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranks Ecuador at 119, Venezuela at 117 and Cuba at 171. Russia clocks in at 148, and China at 173. The United States ranks 32—an advance of 15 points over the previous year, when it was marked down due to the repression of reporters covering the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Ranking last, even after North Korea, is Eritrea at 179. Finland, by the way, holds first place. We wonder if Snowden tried to take refuge there?