Brian Monteith: Silly season breaks tradition with serious stuff
Choosing Ecuador over Sweden is a very strange move for Julian Assange, champion of accountability, writes Brian Monteith
IT HAS been a very strange week in the media. It is August, traditionally viewed as the silly season when it comes to domestic news. That is because our politicians are on holiday and for once would prefer to grab a break rather than grab the headlines.
Suddenly, news reporting becomes dominated by either minor stories that would rarely see the light of day, or foreign news that is usually relegated to well inside the papers and a few extra few clicks on a website.
Add to this familiar state of affairs the sudden withdrawal of saturation coverage of the London Olympics and I think it is fair to say the British media has been thrown into a state of confusion – best illustrated by Friday’s news as it was reported on Saturday.
Front pages were splashed with stories of tap water being sold as bottled water, a gold medal athlete snogging a minor celebrity, the heatwave hitting parts of the country and, the only serious story, the sad death of Winnie Johnson, the mother of Keith Bennett, a victim of the Moors murderers.
In Russia a girl punk band –with the predictably provocative name of Pussy Riot – who pulled a protest against Vladimir Putin in Moscow Cathedral were convicted and sentenced to two years imprisonment for hooliganism.
The story is already disappearing from view despite the worrying message it sends about Putin’s Russia. Sacrilegious? Yes. Offensive? Certainly to those of faith. But imprisonment? Russian orthodox clerics have already forgiven the girls and called for mercy. How would it have been dealt with if it had happened at St Giles’ or St Paul’s? Indifference?
In South Africa an inter-union dispute at a platinum mine escalated, resulting in 34 miners being shot dead by police as the workers charged down a hill they were encamped on, waving sticks and machetes. Two policemen were earlier hacked to death trying to break up a clash where nine strikers were murdered by rivals. President Jacob Zuma has said there will be a full inquiry into how the dispute came to such a tragedy.
Strangely, this story – which would have dominated the BBC only 20 years ago – was given relatively sparse coverage by the British media and the video footage on our news channels was cleansed of the executions to save our sensibilities – while being broadcast in full to the South African public by their own news channels.
Meanwhile, here in Britain the long-drawn-out affair of Julian Assange’s extradition to Sweden for questioning in connection with claims of sexual assault has ramped-up with the granting of asylum by Ecuador. Two months ago Assange broke bail, set at £240,000 back in December 2010, by seeking refugee status in Ecuador’s embassy after the UK’s Supreme Court agreed he should be extradited to Sweden at that country’s request.
President Rafael Correa’s record of prosecuting the media in Ecuador makes that country a very strange choice for a man supposed to be concerned about openness, transparency and accountability.
Indeed, by any comparison, choosing Ecuador over Sweden looks questionable. Why seek to go to a country that, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index is ranked at an appalling 120th out of 182, when Sweden is impressively the fourth-least corrupt? Would Assange not want to know that people cannot easily be bribed to make his handover to his enemies easy?
Or what about Ecuador’s judicial independence? Surely Assange would like to think he’ll be protected by Ecuadorian courts just in case the presidency changes and a new head of state thinks it would be good to cut a deal with Sweden – or even the United States?
Again, Sweden is ranked third in the world for judicial independence from influence by members of government, citizens or corporations while Ecuador is a very poor 130th.
In the political context, by any objective measure, the Republic of Ecuador, the world’s largest producer of bananas, is just that, a stereotypical banana republic that has a poor record for human rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law – and compared to Sweden might as well be on another planet.
Some on the left now feel completely sold out by Assange and feel he is a liability to the work of Wikileaks, while others consider themselves duped by his reliance on their generous support for bail that they will probably forfeit.
When asked about the choice of Ecuador, a Wikileaks spokesman ducked the questions and started talking about Britain. But Assange is not Wikileaks and conflating the defence of Assange with the defence of Wikileaks only undermines the work of the whistle-blowing organisation.
By contrast, Alexander Barankov, a Belarusian blogger and former army captain, sits in an Ecuadorian jail waiting to be extradited to his home country, at its request, after previously being given refugee status there. Julian Assange take note.
The president of Ecuador has locked up journalists, nationalised newspapers, confiscated their computers and threatened his media critics – just the type of issues Assange might have been expected to protest against.
With Assange making a statement from the balcony of the Ecuador embassy in London, the story will dominate today’s newspapers and remain in view until the next distraction.
It is not only the media that is bewildered about what news should be given prominence, the moral compass of the British left is whirling round, causing confusion about which country to demonstrate against. On Thursday they were outside the Ecuadorian embassy, believing rather feverishly that the police might storm it. By Friday they had completely deserted it to go to the Russian one, and by Sunday they were back in Belgravia again as Assange played to his gallery.
Protests about the deaths of 34 miners, there were none.
This year the silly season has a very serious side to it.
• Brian Monteith is policy director of ThinkScotland.org
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