Julian Assange, Erin Burnett and the Battle Over Press Freedom

CNN host Erin Burnett had WikiLeaks‘ Julian Assange on her show late last week (11/28/12) to talk about his new book. But the conversation turned to the allegation of hypocrisy: How can a freedom of information champion like Assange square those principles with the press freedom record of Ecuador, the country that is allowing him to stay in its London embassy in order to avoid arrest?

BURNETT: But, you know, when you talk about this, you know governments clamping down on the right to speak, Ecuador is an unlikely champion of your call for free speech and I wanted to lay this out for you, because just this month, Human Rights Ecuador reports that the president of Ecuador, President Correa proposed —

ASSANGE: Look, look, look, seriously–

BURNETT: Let me finish for my viewers here, though, and then you can go ahead and rip it apart. He said freedom of expression should be a function of the state, where information–

ASSANGE: Look, look, I’m not here–I’m not here to talk about — all governments have their problems.


ASSANGE: I’m not here to talk about — I heard it.


ASSANGE: I’m not here to talk about these little things about Ecuador or whatever. Come on. Let’s be realistic.

BURNETT: It’s not a little thing. Suppressing journalists is not a little thing for someone who says that their job is to put out information that governments try to suppress.

ASSANGE: It is a big problem, the suppression of the freedom of speech all over the world, an extremely big problem. And so is the collapse in the rule of law.

Let’s set aside the notion that a journalist who published a story about how the U.S. military killed journalists in Iraq, and whose outlet had its its funding stream essentially frozen because of U.S. government pressure, needs to speak out about Ecuadoran press rights to prove he’s concerned about press freedom.

Yes, there are some legitimate criticisms of Ecuador’s press policies; the same is true for many countries. The Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders ranks Ecuador 104th in the world. Not a good score by any stretch, but that’s still ahead of Colombia and U.S. ally Jordan, and only slightly behind Israel.  How often do you hear U.S. reporters asking interview subjects to condemn  press policies in those countries?

So what has Ecuador actually done?  Like many countries, Ecuador has libel laws that are, when measured by  the U.S. First Amendment, rather restrictive. As Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic & Policy Research pointed out (Guardian, 7/21/12), the details of the most often cited case against President Rafael Correa deserve a closer look:

Last February, the nation’s highest court upheld a criminal libel conviction against the daily El Universo, with three directors and an opinion editor sentenced to three years in prison, and $40 million in damages. President Correa announced a pardon for the convictions 13 days later–so no one was punished. As noted above, I am against criminal libel laws and would agree with criticism advocating the repeal of such laws. But to say that this case represents a “crackdown” on freedom of expression is more than an exaggeration. These people were convicted of libel because they told very big lies in print, falsely accusing Correa of crimes against humanity. Under Ecuadorian law, he can–like any other citizen–sue them for libel, and the court can and did find them guilty.

He added that what is really happening is more about a political struggle between private media powers and popular governments pursuing policies those owners don’t care for:

Rather than being a heroic battle for freedom of expression against a government that is trying to “silence critics,” it is a struggle between two political actors. One political actor is the major media, whose unelected owners and their allies use their control of information to advance the interests of the wealth and power that used to rule the country; on the other side is a democratic government that is seeking to carry out its reform program, for which it was elected.

Al-Jazeera's Sami Al-Hajj

Sami Al-Hajj, Al-Jazeera journalist who spent six years in Guantanamo for committing journalism

But it’s not just Erin Burnett who takes the level of press freedom in countries with left-leaning governments seriously. This weekend, the New York Times (11/30/12) had a long piece about the political-press dispute in Argentina, pausing to note:

In other parts of Latin America, leaders have clashed vehemently with the news media. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela incurred protests by forcing a critical broadcaster, RCTV, off public airwaves, while President Rafael Correa of Ecuador regularly disparages journalists, some of whom have faced debilitating libel lawsuits.

It is true that Chávez does not have an amicable relationship with the private media barons in his country. These are, after all, the people who agitated–and some instances directly assisted–in the 2002 coup temporarily overthrowing his government. Ask yourself what would happen in this country to a national broadcaster who did the same thing.

It is understandable, given the threats to free expression around the world, that some stories will get more attention than others. In that regard, the patterns are what matter; which cases get more attention from media and political elites here?

As Glenn Greenwald observed (Guardian, 8/21/12), there seems to be an expectation in the Assange case that a dissident must take refuge with a government with a sterling human rights record. This message is conveyed by people who live in a country that has routinely violated human rights around the globe, and it comes from reporters who rarely express any concerns for journalists detained, harassed and killed by their own government.

So, yes: Isn’t it time Julian Assange spoke out on freedom of expression?


About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.