* Supporters hold vigil outside embassy where Assange holed
* "Risk of being pious" about free speech - friend Smith
* WikiLeaks shifted to be more about anti-West - campaign
By Estelle Shirbon and Alessandra Prentice
LONDON, Aug 17 Julian Assange's supporters
outside the London embassy where he is confined say he is being
persecuted for speaking truth to power, but free speech
campaigners further afield say the WikiLeaks founder has lost
his way and damaged the cause.
The Australian has been seeking refuge in the Ecuadorean
embassy for eight weeks to avoid extradition to Sweden where he
is wanted for questioning over allegations of rape.
A dozen activists for causes ranging from Internet freedom
to anti-capitalism were keeping vigil outside the building on
Friday, fuelled by pizzas ordered online for them by an
anonymous WikiLeaks supporter in Canada.
"In my humble opinion they like to shut people up and I
wouldn't be surprised if he got killed. Assange is staying away
from the embassy windows and I don't blame him," said a member
of the anti-finance Occupy movement who gave her name as Tammy.
"Conspiracies are often made to look like crazy theories but
quite often it's all true, hidden in plain sight," she said.
Assange says Sweden would be only a stop on the way to the
United States, where he says he believes authorities want to
punish him for publishing thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables on
WikiLeaks in 2010 in a major embarrassment to Washington.
A U.S. government source said allegations by some Assange
supporters that there was a secret American indictment pending
against him were wrong. The source told Reuters on Thursday that
Washington had not issued any extradition request for Assange.
Ecuador granted Assange asylum on Thursday but Britain has
refused to grant him safe passage to Quito because he has jumped
bail and also because the government is under a legal obligation
to comply with court rulings and send him to Stockholm.
Among freedom of speech groups who should be natural allies
of WikiLeaks, Assange's choice of Ecuador has caused dismay.
"He's ironically going to a country that locks up
journalists frequently. It's a rather grim irony," Padraig Reidy
of Index on Censorship, a group that in 2008 bestowed its new
media prize on WikiLeaks, told Reuters.
Campaign group the Committee to Protect Journalists ran a
piece entitled "Ecuador not fit to champion free expression",
citing harassment of newspapers and closures of radio stations.
"YOU CAN'T GROUND SPIDERMAN"
Vaughan Smith, a loyal British supporter of Assange who
hosted him at his home for a year while extradition proceedings
dragged on, defended his friend's decision to turn to Quito.
"I'm certainly not going to defend Ecuador's beating up on
journalists. I don't think that's defendable. But I don't think
it invalidates their view that Julian is a political refugee,"
Smith told Reuters.
"There's a risk of us being a little bit pious about all
this," he said, pointing out that Britain and the United States
were placed 28th and 47th respectively on Reporters Without
Borders' ranking of countries by levels of press freedom.
This was better than Ecuador at number 104, he acknowledged,
but not good enough to lecture the rest of the world.
But Reidy felt that Assange had gradually drifted away from
WikiLeaks' original agenda.
"There seems to be a real shift in WikiLeaks positioning
from being purely about freedom of information into this vague,
anti-imperialist, anti-American, anti-NATO kind of thing. It's
become much more about this kind of vaguely anti-Western kind of
sentiment, this mushy kind of politics," he said.
The description may not have pleased the Assange supporters
outside the embassy. Two dozen more arrived as the day wore on
and hunkered down with beers to the soundtrack of Tracy
Chapman's song "Talkin' Bout a Revolution".
"Assange shouldn't be grounded. You can't ground Spiderman,"
said Mikey Jones, 22, a systems analyst who had a grey bandana
knotted to hide half his face. "This whole thing is rubbish."
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa is part of a group of
leftist South American leaders, with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and
Bolivia's Evo Morales, who often denounce what they see as U.S.
Ecuador first showed sympathy with Assange in November 2010
when it offered to give him residency, saying it was concerned
about American activities revealed by WikiLeaks.
In April 2011, Quito expelled the U.S. ambassador over
cables published on WikiLeaks in which U.S. diplomats alleged
that the Correa government was tolerating police corruption and
seeking financing from Chavez and from Colombian Marxist rebels.
In January 2012, Kremlin-sponsored English-language TV
channel Russia Today said it had given Assange his own talk
show. Critics of President Vladimir Putin's human rights and
freedom of speech record condemned Assange for taking the job.
In May, Assange interviewed Correa on the programme. The
25-minute conversation, available on YouTube, offers some
insight into the rapport between the president with a tendency
to muzzle the media and the campaigner for free information.
"Let's get rid of these false stereotypes depicting wicked
governments persecuting saint-like and courageous journalists
and news outlets. Often, Julian, it's the other way round,"
Correa said during the interview.
"President Correa, I agree with your market description of
the media. We have seen this again and again, that big media
organisations that we have worked with ... have censored our
material against our agreement," Assange said in response.
He was referring to his dealings with major Western media
including the New York Times and Britain's Guardian, which
published material obtained by WikiLeaks in 2010 but later fell
out with Assange.
That has been a pattern in Assange's collaborations with
Index on Censorship's Reidy said he had parted company with
Assange after discovering that diplomatic cables obtained by
WikiLeaks that contained details of Belarusian opponents had
fallen into the hands of the authoritarian government there.
"We felt Assange was careless about who had access to the
information, to say the least," said Reidy.
Assange's friend Smith, himself a freelance TV journalist,
said the mainstream media establishment, especially in Britain,
was somewhat defensive about new competitors and that there were
elements of a turf war in its relationship with Assange.
"We like the power of controlling the information. We don't
really want that challenged by some Australian. I think there is
an element of that. I'm not saying it's all that," he said.
"I'm not saying that all criticism of Julian Assange is
missplaced, far, far from it ... but I'm afraid that in
journalism there is far too little criticism about ourselves."