June 24, 2013

CHINA MADE a show of disrespect for the Obama administration Sunday by facilitating the flight of Edward Snowden. Russia may do the same. But when it comes to anti-American chutzpah, there’s no beating Rafael Correa, the autocratic leader of tiny, impoverished Ecuador. Mr. Correa and his foreign minister said Monday that they were considering an asylum request by Mr. Snowden. If he can find his way to South America, it appears likely that the former National Security Agency contractor would receive the same welcome as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has spent the past year in Ecuador’s London embassy.

Taking in Mr. Snowden would allow Mr. Correa to advance his most cherished ambition: replacing the deceased Hugo Chavez as the hemisphere’s preeminent anti-U.S. demagogue. It would thwart the Justice Department’s attempt to prosecute the fugitive American. Yet, as we see it, that all might be worth it if the case were to focus public and congressional attention on Mr. Correa’s own repression of free speech — and his attempt to set himself up as a U.S. foil even while profiting from U.S. trade preferences.

For years, Mr. Correa has been known for his prosecutions of his own country’s journalists and his attempts to destroy the Organization of American States’ office on press freedom. But this month he outdid himself: The country’s rubber-stamp legislature passed a new media law, widely known as the “gag law,” that was aptly described by the Inter-American Press Association as “the most serious setback for freedom of the press and of expression in the recent history of Latin America.”

Mr. Snowden should be particularly interested in Section 30 of the law, which bans the “free circulation, especially by means of the communications media” of information “protected under a reserve clause established by law.” The legislation empowers a new superintendent of information and communication to heavily fine anyone involved in releasing such information, even before they are prosecuted in the courts. In other words, had Mr. Snowden done his leaking in Ecuador, not just he but also any journalist who received his information would be subject to immediate financial sanction, followed by prosecution.

Other provisions of Ecuador’s new law would limit private media to 33 percent of the broadcast market and establish a new crime of “media lynching,” defined as the dissemination of information to reduce the public credibility of someone — such as Mr. Correa, for example. As the Committee to Protect Journalists put it, “this legislation puts into law a key goal of the Correa presidency: muzzling all critics.”

Some might find it awkward to be granting sanctuary to one country’s self-proclaimed whistleblower while stifling their own. Not Mr. Correa, who for years has been campaigning against the United States while depending on it to prop up his economy with trade preferences. Thanks to the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Protection Act, Ecuador — which uses the dollar as its currency — is able to export many goods to the United States duty-free, supporting roughly 400,000 jobs in a country of 14 million people.

As it happens, the preferences will expire next month unless renewed by Congress. If Mr. Correa welcomes Mr. Snowden, there will be an easy way to demonstrate that Yanqui-baiting has its price.