QUITO — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has found an unlikely ally in Ecuador President Rafael Correa, who defends the document-leaking website while cracking down on media in his own country, experts say.
On Thursday Correa granted asylum to Assange, who has taken shelter at the Ecuadoran embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning on sexual assault allegations. Assange claims to be the target of US authorities.
Assange and his supporters have billed WikiLeaks as an Internet-age whistle-blowing tool that exposes the misdeeds of the powerful.
But while "Correa is committed to the defense of freedom of expression for Assange," said political analyst and former education minister Vladimiro Alvarez, "he doesn't respect it in Ecuador."
"His government is pressuring the media and attacking journalists who challenge his politics."
The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists has accused Correa of shutting down critical radio stations, passing laws to restrict campaign coverage ahead of February 13 elections and using state media to bully critics.
"Correa's press freedom record is among the very worst in the Americas, and providing asylum to the WikiLeaks founder won't change the repressive conditions facing Ecuadoran journalists who want to report critically about government policies and practices," the group said on its website.
Correa, a leftist leader in power since 2007, enjoys widespread popularity for his social programs, but has frequently clashed with private media, which he has called "corrupt" and accused of trying to destabilize his government.
He waged a long legal battle with the opposition El Universo newspaper over an article accusing Correa of "crimes against humanity" in his response to a 2010 police mutiny, violence that left 10 dead and 274 wounded.
A court sentenced the paper's three top executives and former opinion page editor -- all of whom have sought asylum outside the country -- to three years in prison, and awarded Correa $40 million in damages for libel.
Correa pardoned the three in February after an outcry by human rights and media freedom groups, and he pardoned two other reporters sentenced to pay him $2 million over a book on his brother's public contracts.
But critics say the cases have sent a chilling signal to opposition media and undermine claims that Correa is defending freedom of expression in offering Assange asylum.
"Correa is trying to profit from the asylum (granted) to Assange," Carlos Perez, the pardoned director of El Universo, said.
"Every time Correa has spoken about the Assange affair, he has affirmed that liberty of expression must be respected. He is responding to those around the world who criticized him during the El Universo affair."
Correa, who is ften at odds with Washington, himself, has expressed a sense of solidarity with Assange, a sentiment the Australian former hacker has returned.
In an joint interview earlier this year, Correa welcomed Assange to the "club of the persecuted," while Assange expressed support for Correa's fight against the right-leaning Ecuadoran media.
Correa recently stressed that Assange's application for asylum was "the best response" to accusations that his administration does not respect freedom of expression.
The Assange case "is helping to brush up the bad image Correa has abroad because of his relations with Ecuadoran media outlets," said Jose Lasso, a professor at Quito's Andina Simon Bolivar University.
It's a risky move, however, as the affair could harm Ecuador's relationship with Britain and potentially with the United States, which has accused WikiLeaks of harming its national security by publishing a trove of secret war reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as countless confidential diplomatic cables.
And Correa's battle with opposition media is far from over -- this week, the government-backed Council of Childhood and Adolescence filed a new complaint against El Universo for violating the privacy of children by publishing photos of them taken during a reception at the presidential palace.
The newspaper says it received the parents' permission to take the photos.
Correa "has a concept of free expression that's unlike that of the rest of the world. For him, whoever criticizes him is his enemy," Perez said.
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