Four European media were chosen by the website WikiLeaks to receive the 251.287 diplomatic documents of the US-American State Department, written between 2004 and March 2010 for 90% of them: The british daily The Guardian, the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel, the Spanish daily El Pais and the French daily Le Monde. The Guardian transmitted the information to the New York Times.
Some journalists have labeled the website attacks surrounding the WikiLeaks controversy to be the first global cyberwar. But no matter how we define it and the outburst around it, the buzz generated by WikiLeaks in the international media, that has already lasted for weeks, seems far from being over yet.
How did the media react to the WikiLeaks publication in their home countries? Here is an overview of reactions in France, Turkey, Sweden and Egypt, gathered by the correspondents of EMAJ Magazine.
1- Journalists welcome WikiLeaks (France)
Concerning the information revealed by the WikiLeaks documents that targeted France, many points were picked on, such as issues related to the political/economic relations between France and some African states, or business affairs of French companies such as the French construction, television and telecommunications company Bouygues in Turkmenistan, which is often presented as a dicatorial state. French president Saroky was depicted in some documents as “impulsive”, “frenetic”, “on the edge of the burlesque” and “obsessed by America“. In terms of volume, the information contained in the WikiLeaks documents received a large coverage (the International page of the daily newspaper Le Monde, that directly received the information from WikiLeaks, deals for instance almost exclusively with the cables). However no particular attention was dedicated to any of the subjects.
One has to keep in mind that the WikiLeaks story takes place at a time of harsh polemics opposing the French State to journalists, starting with the case of Liliane Bettencourt. As an example, in October this year journalists of three media institutions – the daily major Le Monde, the weekly magazine Le Point and the online newspaper Médiapart – who were investigating links between France’s richest woman Liliane Bettencourt and Nicolas Sarkozy’s political party UMP have had their computers stolen.
In such a climate, the information revealed by WikiLeaks did not appear as truly schocking in France. The biggest buzz there regarding WikiLeaks concerned the French company OVH, the plateform hosting the website of WikiLeaks in France. On December 3rd, the French Minister for Industry and Digital information, Eric Besson (former Minister for Immigration and National Identity) decided to try and open a legal battle against WikiLeaks. He asked his services in a letter to look for “possible actions” so that “this website would no longer be hosted in France” (the website of the weekly newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche published parts of the letter). According to the Minister, the website had “violated the diplomatic secret” and “France cannot host Internet websites that violate in such way the secret of diplomatic relations and put in danger the persons protected by the diplomatic secret. One cannot host websites that are qualified as criminals and rejected by other States because of infringement to their fundemental rights”. However the French justice refused to pronounce itself on whether the company OVH, which is based in France, had the right to host on its servers WikiLeaks or not and OVH announced they would not stop hosting WikiLeaks.
The WikiLeaks documents revived an ongoing debate in France of overlapping between media and politics. Partly as a reaction to the failed attack of Minister Besson, the leftist-liberal daily newspaper Libération launched a “mirror website” last weekend, which reproduces all information published on the original website WikiLeaks (wikileaks.liberation.fr). The redactor in chief of the newspaper, Laurent Joffrin, justified the action as follows: “Democratic states have the right to keep secrets and to act, in legal ways, behind acknowledged confidentiality rules. But the information organs, on the Internet and elsewhere, are not and should not be extensions of States (…) In a democray, the right to information is stronger than the logic of powers”.
Generally, the French media, especially the written and the online press, tend to support WikiLeaks. In a commentary, the economic daily major Les Echos wrote: “The “right to secrecy” exists for States as well as for individuals, even though they do not have the same justifications: It is not about the protection of privacy, but about efficiency and security. The Wikileaks case is certainly less harmful through the “leaks” broadcasted today than through the mistrust screed that will weigh in the future on international politics –and will do more damage to democracies than to authoritarian regimes, that are used to the art of controlling information”.
In the daily major Le Monde, the French historian Milad Doueihi wrote: “Let us firstly underline the unease, the nostalgy expressed by a large majority of politicians, that announce the end of a diplomacy, that was efficient because secret, and a new era of suspicion through the free move of documents classified as “state secret”. Strangely these same politicians, in the US, in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, have reacted passively to the leaks and losses of confidential data that affected thousands and sometimes even millions of their fellow citizens”.
But the real pertinence of the information was also sometimes put into question. According to the journalist and specialist of international issues, François d’Alençon, who wrote on his blog on the Catholic daily newspaper La Croix, the information published by WikiLeaks are no surprise: “What did we learn until now? A few surprises, many confirmations and no scandal. Several diplomatic ‘gossips’ on socialite personnalities, from Nicolas Sarkozy to the colonel Khadafi… Beyond this trivial aspect, the telegramms reflect above all the work of professional diplomats in the normal exercice of their functions : information collecting at foreign leaders’ and analysis, search for common actions, pressure on allies and opponents”.
According to a survey published by the regional daily newspaper Ouest-France and carried out by the French Institute of Public Opinion (Ifop), 54% of French citizens are supporting further publications of WikiLeaks documents. The figure reached 73% of supporters among the 18-24 year-olds.
2- Debate on freedom of press (Turkey)
Rumors that the website WikiLeaks was going to release American diplomatic cables have generated a great excitement among Turkish media. Extra shifts were written and journalists prepared themselves for overtime. However the thrill survived only until the Pandora’s Box finally opened. After finding out that the cables comprised many allegations about Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the excitement at news desks turned into a worry.
If there was a substantial freedom of press in Turkey, the choice would have been easy to make: To publish the whole content of the cables. However the situation was more complex as the allegations were serious. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was portrayed in some cables as an authoritarian and distrustful leader of the AKP, and one of the cables was reporting that he had eight accounts in Swiss banks. The Turkish media found themselves caught in the dilemna between publishing the documents which had absolute news value, and the risk of annoying the Turkish Prime Minister.
On November 29th, two daily newspapers, Taraf and Sözcü, printed the following headline: “Erdoğan has eight bank accounts in Switzerland”, referring to a cable with the sign of a former US Ambassador in Ankara, Eric Edelman.
Two big newspapers of Doğan Yayın, a leading media company which was slapped with a record $ 490 million tax fine in 2009, chose to remain passive on the specific issue. The tax fine of the company was largely interpreted as the government’s response to the previous reports of Doğan newspapers about corruption allegations involving Erdoğan’s political allies. So this time, the company which has severe financial problems, approached the claims with caution. The daily newspaper Hurriyet mentioned the allegations about Erdoğan’s bank accounts as gossip, and the other daily Milliyet did not mention about the issue on the first day of the leaks.
The daily newspaper Sabah, which is owned by Çalık Holding AŞ and managed by Chief Executive Officer and Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, refrained from publishing the allegations. A group of other newspapers and broadcasters chose to shut their eyes on the claim, as well. The daily newspaper Zaman, a conservative newspaper related to the so-called Gulen movement, was one of them.
The media, which did not want to take a risk by reporting the claim, could breath freely again on December 1st, because they were able to stay out of Prime Minister’s anger. Erdoğan slammed the cables as slander and said: “The publications that have written about the claims are vile, too”. This was not the first time Erdoğan attacked the Turkish press. He had previously called AKP members to boycott newspapers that publish “false and incorrect news” about the party.
Erdoğan’s slap flamed an ethical discussion in Turkish media about publishing “uncorroborated claims”. Some editors in chief support to publish the claims made by American diplomats, saying that “claims are serious enough to be published”. However most of the editors point out that the claims should be subject to editorial filtering. But what is the filtering criterion for an editor, who feels the pressure of government over himself?
Now, there is a visible decline in mainstream media’s reports on personal accusations about Turkish authorities in the Wikileaks cables. However, the leaks about other countries are still followed closely by the media. And the question of “how free is Turkish press” seems to stay there untouched.
3- A question of morality (Sweden)
Regarding Sweden, the most “damaging” information of the leaks concerned the relationship and cooperation of the country with the US on terrorism and illegal downloading (in the Australian daily newspaper The Australian Julian Assange referred to Sweden as a secret NATO member). However, the discussions about the content of the leaks were blured by the discussion around the legality and moral aspects of WikiLeaks as an actor and the rape charges against Assange.
The media focused on two main questions: Did WikiLeaks do something wrong and can they be prosecuted? Since one of the WikiLeaks servers is hosted in Sweden, the legal aspects of the story received a great deal of attention. The media however provided no clear answers. One of the major newspapers Svenska Dagbladet wrote for instance that experts ”do not know whether the Swedish law can be applied when the American police wants to stop an Australian man from uploading documents on Swedish servers”.
The moral aspects were usually brought up in columns, editorials and panel debates where there seemed to be quite a disagreement, even among journalists. The danger of the publication of leaked documents was said to be the diplomatic damage and the increased control of the internet that would follow.
“After WikiLeaks’ latest leak, the world leaders will rush towards the development of a more closed internet”, wrote Dagens Nyheter, one of Sweden’s leading dailies.
The voices supporting the leaks revoked the role of media in exposing the irregularities within the political leadership.
“Politicians and leaders often get upset with people who leak to the media, but a world where these leaks do not exist is a world where only those in power can define what is true and not true. We cannot have it like that. Those in power should also admit this, instead of barking at the messenger”, wrote Daniel Sandström, editor-in-chief of Sydsvenskan.
The second debate which completely overshadowed the content of the leaks circled around the rape charges against Assange in Sweden. The news also generated a wave of hatred towards the alleged rape victims, placing them in the center of a presumed conspiracy against Assange. The women, whose names and addresses are public, have been called liars, whores or CIA agents on different blogs and social networks (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFTe3I3jH8E). The author and activist Naomi Klein and the activist Naomi Wolf have called the rape charge a fraud. The famous journalist John Pilger said that Sweden should be ashamed.
However, many have raised the important point that accusing potential rape victims of lying is taking the debate to a new low and not really helping the WikiLeaks.
“Julian Assange may be WikiLeaks’ poster boy, but without the network that does the work of WikiLeaks, nobody would even know who he is. Wasn’t internet supposed to create networking democracies and free us from hierarchies and worship of leaders ?”, wrote the columnist of the Swedish magazine Dagensarena, an independent left-wing publication.
4- Government vs. Opposition (Egypt)
Several leaks concerning Egypt focused on the figure of today’s president Hosni Mubarak. In a dispatch, the press agency Agence France Press reported on a secret cable on the presidential succession in Egypt, that was written made by US ambassador Francis Ricciardone in a May 2007: “Cairene conventional wisdom holds that Gamal wants the job, despite his repeated denials to the contrary“. The UK daily major The Guardian, that received the information directly from WikiLeaks, quoted a secret cable sent from U.S. ambassador to Cairo Margaret Scobey to U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in May 2009, stating that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may remain in office for life. Presidential elections will take place next year in Egypt (see also the article of EMAJ magazine about 2010 parliamentary elections).
Opinion of EMAJ correspondent Ahmet Esmat: “After some of the WikiLeaks were published and I went thought them, I can’t deny that I had to read them one more time to really understand them, or maybe I didn’t believe what was written… A lot is going on under cover around us.
The way the Egyptian press dealt with the topic is what made me laugh. The governmental newspaper selected the parts showing how strong the system is and use the quotes as headlines, while the so-called independent press did the opposite.
Ironically some famous figures of the civil society were afraid to find their names in the documents”.
Use the comments section and let us know if you think WikiLeaks documents are supported or attacked in the media, and whether you think the treatment is fair or not.