CNN and much of the Spanish language press regaled in an apparent “aha!” moment last week when, in an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett, WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange referred to Ecuador as an “insignificant country.” CNN en español immediately reported on the incident on its Spanish-language news program. “For Julian Assange, Ecuador is an irrelevant country. Textual quote,” the anchor said, making quote signs with his fingers for added effect. “The founder of Wikileaks belittles President Rafael Correa in an interview on this network,” he added, before broadcasting a very short excerpt of the interview in which Assange made the offensive remark.
Other Spanish-language news outlets quickly chimed in, eager to inform their audience that Assange, who has spent the last five months in Ecuador’s London embassy, gravely disrespected the country that has offered him asylum. “Assange doesn’t mince his words, and calls Ecuador ‘insignicant’ ” headlined El Comercio, Ecuador’s leading daily. Spanish online newspaper Libertad Digital stated:
Despite being six months now in their embassy in London, the founder of Wikileaks hasn’t said very nice things about Ecuador. In an interview with the U.S. television network CNN, he avoided commenting on the situation of freedom of expression or the control of media by the government of Rafael Correa, as it is a country that is “insignificant” and its decisions don’t have the same importance as those of other states.
But relatively little attention was paid to a statement that WikiLeaks published in reaction to the coverage that Assange’s Ecuador comment had generated. The statement provides a bit of critical background information that was generally not mentioned, or buried deep inside the articles:
Today there have been reports misquoting Julian Assange in relation to Ecuador as a result of an exchange with CNN’s Erinn [sic] Burnett. To those who watch the segment the meaning is clear. Those that have drawn attention to the quote have clearly done so with the intention of misrepresenting what in context was clear in its meaning. Said comment occured [sic] within the context of a CNN interview about Mr. Assange’s new book, Cypherpunks. CNN had agreed to ask Mr. Assange about the topic of the book, namely the abuse of mass surveillance by the United States and other mass surveillance powers. The CNN interviewer tried to move the debate away from the scrutiny of the abuses of the United States mass surveillance, by attacking Mr. Assange over Ecuador’s media reform. Since the subject was the abuse of mass surveillance and Ecuador is not known to be an abusive surveillance power, Mr. Assange said Ecuador’s was "not significant" in this context and the conversation should return to topic.
At the end of the statement, WikiLeaks provides a link to the full interview and “encourages” readers to watch it in order to form their own assessment.
Indeed, the interview – which lasts 12 minutes – appears at first to be focused on Assange’s new book Cypherpunks, which deals with what Assange and his co-authors refer to as “the problem of mass surveillance technology” and the Internet. Assange’s clear intention is to use the short interview to promote and discuss the contents of his new book which, in his words, “describe an extremely serious situation” threatening democratic civilization around the world. But his interviewer, Erin Burnett, seems uninterested in the topic of mass surveillance. To Assange’s evident frustration, she continuously turns to juicier issues like whether Assange feels guilty about Private Bradley Manning facing the prospect of life in prison (in response, Assange comments on the abusive treatment Manning has undergone which, he says, is “a reflection of the decay in the rule of law”). When Burnett asks him about the rumors of him having a lung infection, he responds “this is not about Julian Assange” and tries to return to the theme of his book.
Burnett then takes up the issue of press freedom in Ecuador, a country which, she tells Assange, is “an unlikely champion of your call for free speech.” As she begins to quote Human Rights Ecuador on recent statements by Correa, Assange gets irritated. “Look, come on, seriously!” he says,
I’m not here to talk about these little things, about Ecuador, or whatever. Come on, let’s be realistic. (Crosstalk) It’s a very big problem, the suppression of the freedom of speech. All over the world. An extremely serious problem. And so is the collapse in the rule of law.
He then mentions serious press freedom issues in the U.S. that have gotten substantially less attention on CNN and other major media outlets than the allegations directed at the government of Ecuador. “You should be well aware that an Al Jazeera journalist has spent six years in Guantanamo Bay,” Assange tells Burnett. Burnett then pulls out a quote from the Committee to Protect Journalists stating that Correa “has turned Ecuador into one of the hemisphere’s most restrictive nations for the press.”
“Let’s concentrate on what is happening in the entire civilization of the world,” says an exasperated Assange, who now has less than two minutes of time to discuss his book. But Burnett refuses to let go: “Then why won’t you talk about Ecuador?”
“Because Ecuador is insignificant! It’s extremely important to me. Its people have been generous to me. But it’s not a significant world player. South America, and the developments that are happening in South America are interesting and significant, and its growing, emerging independence. But they are not the topic of what we’re doing here. The topic of this book is what is happening to all of us, and the threats that all of us face.”
Assange then manages to make a final pitch for the book before he is abruptly cut off.
It’s hardly surprising that Assange didn’t answer Burnett’s persistent question. Indeed, as an asylum recipient it would be imprudent to say the least, to comment on internal issues in his host country. But, clearly, the point of the question was not so much to elicit a response as to try to underscore the apparent hypocrisy of Assange, the world’s most notorious freedom of information advocate, seeking refuge in the embassy of a government that allegedly clamps down on free speech. This is an all too familiar line. CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot has discussed the dual smear campaign targeting an individual and a country that have made themselves unpopular with the U.S. government. He has also lamented the fact that major U.S.-based human rights groups have failed to defend Assange’s right to asylum and have instead increased their criticism of the state of Ecuador’s free speech, although the press there “remains uncensored and more oppositional with respect to the government than the U.S. media is.”
It is interesting that, in the end, the main take away from the interview for the Spanish-language major press has been the decontextualized remark about Ecuador’s “insignificance.” When one reads the headlines and commentary on Assange’s remark, particularly in the Ecuadorean press, it’s clear that the message is that Ecuador’s ungrateful guest has offended the country’s honor. If at all effective, it could add the pressure of a misinformed Ecuadorean public to the already enormous pressure that Ecuador has undergone to deliver Assange to British authorities.
It’s perhaps not surprising that the Spanish-language outlet that was most guilty of decontextualizing Assange’s comment was the U.S. government’s Voice of America. They published an article entitled “Assange: Ecuador es insignificante” that is actually focused mainly on the rumors around Assange’s health. It contains just one line about the comment:
Assange told the CNN network that “Ecuador is insignificant”, that it doesn’t have international support.