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Assange disregards questions on free press, his reported ill health

By Chelsea J. Carter, CNN
November 29, 2012 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
  • Ecuador granted Julian Assange asylum in August
  • The Committee to Protect Journalists says Ecuador has one of the worst press freedom records
  • "Whatever little things occurring in small countries are not of concern," Assange says
  • Assange fled to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in June

(CNN) -- WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange declined to discuss government abuse of the press by the country that has been shielding him from arrest in a CNN interview that was more remarkable for what he didn't say than any revelations about his plight.

In a sometimes combative interview Wednesday on "OutFront with Erin Burnett," Assange described strategic surveillance by governments as a "sea change in politics" that puts freedoms at risk.

When pushed about Ecuador's press freedom record, described by the Committee to Protect Journalists as one of the worst in Latin America, Assange said: "Its people have been generous to me, but it's not a significant world player."

"Whatever little things occurring in small countries are not of concern," he said. "We must concentrate on what is happening in the entire civilization of the world."

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Assange fled to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in June to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over allegations that he raped one woman and sexually molested another. Assange has said he fears Sweden will transfer him to the United States, where he could face the death penalty for the work of WikiLeaks.

He has repeatedly said the allegations are politically motivated and tied to the work of his website, which facilitates the publication of secret documents. WikiLeaks has published hundreds of thousands of pages of American government diplomatic cables and assessments of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He has not been charged in the United States, though Assange and his supporters claim a U.S. grand jury has been empanelled to consider charges against him.

Army Pvt. Bradley Manning, 24, has been charged with leaking classified military and State Department documents while serving as an intelligence analyst in Iraq. Assange nor WikiLeaks have ever confirmed Manning was the source.

Assange appeared on the CNN news show to promote a new book he co-authored: "Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet," which examines the threat of the Internet. He wrote the book with Jacob Appelbaum, Jeremie Zimmermann and Andy Muller-Maguhn.

The interview turned testy when he declined to discuss Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa's press freedom record.

Correa, according to CPJ, has shuttered 11 local radio stations and had a record of filing lawsuits in civil and criminal courts as a means of intimidation.

"It's not the topic of what we are doing here," Assange said, adding that he agreed to appear on the show to discuss "the surveillance state."

During the interview, Burnett asked Assange whether he felt any guilt about the plight of Manning or concern he might broker a plea deal that could implicate him.

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Assange deflected the questions and focused on the effort of Manning's attorney to get the case dismissed over alleged abuse the private suffered to implicate him and WikiLeaks.

"As far as we know, there has been no such confession."

Assange also declined to answer questions about his health following comments from Ecuador's ambassador to the UK that the WikiLeaks founder is suffering a chronic lung infection.

"I don't think it's important," Assange said.

Assange has been effectively confined for the past five months to the Ecuadorian Embassy, which granted him asylum in August. The move sparked a diplomatic row with the UK, which has said it will arrest Assange if he leaves the embassy.

The UK says it has a legal obligation to hand Assange over to Sweden, after his legal effort to avoid extradition were rejected by British courts.

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