A few weeks ago, at the Frontline Club in London, Julian Assange noted how different newspapers that he had worked with in releasing leaks to the public, focused on different stories, although he had provided exactly the same information to all. In particular, he noted how The New York Times honed in on Pakistan. This is media selectivity. It happens everywhere. For example, newspapers in Paksitan will readily note that Prime Minister Gilani told the Americans that he will protest drones in parliament and then turn the other way. But few, if any, will note that in a separate cable, the Turkish ambassador reportedly praises Gilani, and particularly Shah Mahmood Qureshi, for improving relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan — relations that had soured considerably due to a virtual personality clash between Pervez Musharraf and Hamid Karzai. Similarly, the western press has run headlines on Arab leaders colluding on an attack on Iran, but omitted the fact that Sheikh Makhdoom of Dubai and Sheikh Hamad of Qatar cautioned against the attack. But this selectivity is not as troubling as spin or, worse yet, lies.
On December 6, The Guardian reported, with a sensational headline, that the Arabic channel al Jazeera is used by Qatar “as a bargaining chip in foreign policy negotiations”, offering various examples in support of its claim that al Jazeera is not editorially independent. As a regular watcher of al Jazeera and having read the cable in question, I found the story embellished, perhaps to undermine a powerful alternative voice in international media. This is called spin. Yet, to be fair to The Guardian, it also published an opinion piece by a former al Jazeera employee challenging the story.
There is plenty to spin in the cables for media in the Muslim world, if they were so inclined. There are reports, for instance, on how Frances Townsend asked Prince Saud al Faisal to use his “influence with Arabsat to block al Manar broadcasting,” but Saud al Faisal did not agree. In another cable, in the aftermath of the Mumbai attack, the UK is said to have expressed fears that India may “at a minimum, increase its covert activities in Balochistan”. Other despatches point to lacking Israeli intelligence in respect of Iran’s nuclear programme and Israeli fears over Russian reaction to a potential attack on Bushehr. American diplomats have reported that Israel has consistently been exaggerating the nuclear threat from Iran. Now how is that for a headline? But no, rather than doing the research and attempting sophisticated analysis, there is a tendency to discredit the work that has gone into bringing this information to us free of charge by discounting it as just another conspiracy. In the worst case, a fabricated story, such as the one on Indian generals, was run in sections of the Pakistani press.
In a December 8 guest appearance on “Dunya Today”, I urged fellow Pakistanis to read the cables for themselves and to not rely on the media (whether Pakistani or foreign) for interpretation. Then, I was thinking more along the lines of spin, but the lies recently fed to the Pakistani public in the name of WikiLeaks further underscores the importance of reading the cables for ourselves and going directly to the source. It is rare to be able to read a media report and have access to the source on which it is based, thereby enabling us to verify the story. We should not let this opportunity go. Not only are the cables an entertaining read, they are also highly instructive on subjects of international relations and realpolitik.
Reading classified diplomatic cables from capitals other than Islamabad provides a perspective that is entirely lacking domestically within Pakistan, and would enhance international awareness, thus enabling us to defend our positions based on truth, rather than resorting to lies.
Published in The Express Tribnune, December 13th, 2010.