Wiki-what?! The Cablegate Debate

Some politicians and journalists call Wikileaks dangerous. Othersdismiss it as gossip. What does this beast mean to the guardians ofnews?

MANILA, Philippines — Local headlines that lifted from released WikiLeaks cables have been relentless in the past few weeks. 

“US cable: Cory Aquino an ‘icon’ but ‘tarnished, weak,’” reported the Inquirer. “Noynoy, ‘diffident, unassertive,’ Wikileaks quotes Kenney,” said The Daily Tribune. “Wikileaks cable: Mike Arroyo ‘one of most corrupt’ under wife’s rule, business leaders assert,’” bannered Interaksyon.com. “US cable says general gained from Abu kidnap,” went another Inquirer story.

The stories opened and reopened wounds in politics and the sensitive world of diplomacy. At the same time, they revealed some new information that would have otherwise remained secret and unknown.

For instance, no less than President Benigno Aquino III couldn’t help but react to stories that quoted former US ambassador Kristie Kenney as supposedly saying that he and his mother, former President Corazon Aquino, showed weak leadership. “What is she reporting? If they (US government) believe that she is the most prompt and complete source of information, it seems far from the actual truth,” the President said.

Another former president, Fidel V. Ramos, was alleged in a WikiLeaks cable as having received P5 million in campaign funds “from the Libyans” in 1992. Ramos challenged his closest rival in the 1992 presidential elections, Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, to invite ex-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to a Senate probe. Not one to take a challenge sitting down, Santiago retorted, “I am a laureate of the Magsaysay award for government service. Ramos is not a laureate of the Magsaysay award. End of debate.”

WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy website, released more than 3,000 cables from the US embassy in Manila, revealing the colorful and the candid behind the diplomatese. The documents are part of the so-called Cablegate – over 250,000 US embassy cables that the non-profit organization began releasing in November 2010. WikiLeaks boasts that Cablegate is the largest set of confidential documents ever to be made public.

Open Season 

WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange started to release last August unredacted cables online after a British journalist published the passphrase that opened access to an otherwise encrypted master file. Guardian journalist David Leigh mistakenly thought the passphrase had been changed and mentioned it in his book. To level things, Assange decided to release the names of diplomatic sources mentioned in the last set of cables dumped this year.

Like the rest of the global media, Filipino journalists pored through the cache of files in search of newsworthy finds. And find they did,to the chagrin of diplomats, businessmen and government officials mentioned in the cables.

Reports on the cables drew strong backlash from officials who felt slighted or misquoted. But after all the sound and the fury, the media’s stories drew a slew of reactions and left many unanswered questions about the value of WikiLeaks and its impact on Philippine journalism.

“Wikileaks is dangerous” 

Sen. Joker Arroyo advised government officials and reporters, “The moral lesson is: Don’t accept invitations unless it’s official …. This experience tells us how the US government thinks, how they cannot be trusted, how they backbite.”

He also criticized media coverage of the cables, “Media selectively reports (the WikiLeaks stories) so you can see the double damage. Because you report only that which are juicy. And so what happens? The persons affected would be prejudiced.”

Arroyo’s reaction seems to confirm the fear that WikiLeaks will engender distrust of diplomats, undermining the need for confidentiality in their work. The New York Times noted that reporting from American embassies around the world suffered, with foreigners become nervous about sharing views that could get them in trouble if leaked.

Some Filipino journalists share this negative view of WikiLeaks. Inquirer columnist Amando Doronila wrote, “Disclosure of secret diplomatic papers is a nemesis of stable diplomacy. It cannot be left in the hands of pilferers of state secrets.”

Will this reluctance to share information harm journalism? 

“Gossip is better than Wikileaks” 

Asked about stories that then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was tolerating corrupt activities of her husband, Vice President Jejomar Binay quipped, “Is that news? Everybody knows it.” 

Pundits point out that there seems to be nothing new in many of the reported cables. An Inquirer editorial said, “One is struck not so much by the contents of the reports, as by their second-string quality …. The same rote, familiar narratives clog the Philippine airwaves every day.”

Philippine Star columnist Cito Beltran said reports about the US’s active role in the peace process and Philippine officials profiting from kidnapping have been publicized years ago. “Wikileaks was a dud and pales in comparison to the daily exposés and discoveries that are made because of Pinoy tsismis (gossip).”

If it’s not news, should journalists report it?

“We don’t comment on Wikileaks but…” 

While not labeling WikiLeaks as gossip, many government officials admit that information on the cables is unverified. Still, some, including the President, could not resist taking a jab at diplomats who reportedly made unflattering comments about them.

Aquino’s men did the same. Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario called Kenney a “dismal failure in helping Filipinos defend our democracy.” The president’s Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang joined in the bashing. “We normally don’t comment on purportedly leaked cables but it’s quite consistent with talk that went on in the diplomatic community at the time that Ambassador Kenney had been co-opted by the Arroyo regime.”

If WikiLeaks were just gossip, why are top officials reacting?

“WikiLeaks is a blessing”

Criticism notwithstanding, many journalists are big fans of WikiLeaks. Inquirer columnist Conrado de Quiros was adamant. “They are not rumors, they are not speculations, they are not theories. They are facts …. These are the American officials’ own assessments, own thoughts, own words. Nothing could be more candid, nothing could be more revealing, nothing could be more enlightening. For us.”

De Quiros found it mind-boggling that many dismiss the reports as old stories. “It’s enough to make you wonder when it was that we really became an independent country. Except that it won’t really boggle our minds to discover we’re not.”

Journalist and blogger Carlos Conde said that beyond the cables on the Aquinos, WikiLeaks provided significant revelations about corruption in past administrations, the conflict in Mindanao, human rights abuses and the roles of the military and police. “All of these have given the public an unprecedented peek into America’s involvement, rightly or wrongly, in Philippine internal affairs.”

But WikiLeaks doesn’t necessarily make reporters’ jobs easy. Journalist Ellen Tordesillas initially reported on a WikiLeaks cable saying former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban was the protector of a Filipino-Chinese businessman allegedly selling pirated goods. But she later found out that while the businessman indeed had a connection in the Supreme Court, it was with a different justice.

Tordesillas blogged, “These new info is a reminder for us not to take as gospel truth everything mentioned in the US embassy cables as exposed by WikiLeaks. They provide good leads. That’s the beauty and the value of WikiLeaks.”

How should journalists pursue these leads and provide context?

Looking Ahead

WikiLeaks is credited for helping expose abuses of the US military in the Iraq and Afghan wars, catalyzing the Tunisian revolution by revealing excesses of leaders, and ultimately promoting transparency and accountability. Its open government advocates, however, have also drawn flak for potentially putting lives and limbs in danger. 

Besides ruffling feathers and giving credence to long-held assumptions, it has got journalists, leaders and readers asking how best to deal with the beast.

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