Monday, December 13, 2010

Part 5 - After 12 days of WikiLeaks cables, the world looks on US with new eyes

Reaction across the globe to the leaked US embassy cables has ranged from anger and bitterness to extreme indifference

Pakistani demonstrators burn a US flag in support of WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange during a rally in Multan. Photograph: Mohammad Malik/AFP/Getty Images

South Asia



Pakistan
The rich store of WikiLeaks revelations about Pakistan have monopolized headlines and the political agenda for over ten days. But some stories are considered too hot to touch. While cables exposing the foibles of Pakistan's civilian leaders triggered a media feeding frenzy, the press largely ignored revelations that cast the powerful military in a bad light, including its alleged support for Islamist extremist groups such as the Taliban. That left politicians struggling to bat off embarrassing allegations, such as the bearded religious firebrand seen cosying up to the American ambassador, President Asif Zardari's obsession with his death, or prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani's secret support for CIA drone strikes.

"Don't trust WikiLeaks," Gilani told reporters in Kabul at the weekend, attempting to brush off the revelations as "the observations of junior diplomats". Beside him President Hamid Karzai, also tarred in the dispatches, nodded solemnly. Rarely have the sparring neighbours agreed so easily. Coverage of army chief General Ashfaq Kayani focused on revelations that he threatened to oust Zardari last year but held back because he "distrusted" opposition contender Nawaz Sharif. The army issued a statement that Kayani "holds all political leaders in esteem". But most reporters shied away from US intelligence assessments that the army under Kayani continues to support the Taliban and Mumbai attackers Lashkar-e-Taiba. "ISI extols the virtues of some Taliban elements" read one small headline that provided no other details; otherwise loquacious television anchors were largely silent on the matter. One exception was the new Express Tribune paper. "It has always been an open secret that the military acts as puppet master," said an editorial "Only now do we have confirmation of just how tenuous the hold of democracy in the country really is."

Pakistani conspiracy theorists insisted the cables had been deliberately leaked as part of a Washington plot to discredit the Muslim world; the Saudi ambassador described them as "a rapist's propaganda".

But for most Pakistanis, the cables simply confirmed how much influence the US wields over their military and civilian leaders. Several headlines referred to the "WikiLeaks shame"; former diplomat Asif Ezdi said they proved Pakistan had become "the world's biggest banana republic".

The judiciary, meanwhile, liked the cables. Dismissing an attempt to block their publication, High Court judge Sheikh Azmat Saeed, said that WikiLeaks "may cause trouble for some personalities" but would be "good for the progress of the nation in the long run."

Afghanistan

In Afghanistan the Wikileaks disclosure have been a source of endless fascination for the general public, with the country's journalists devoting hours of airtime to pouring over the cables. Among pundits debate has raged about the meaning of the revelations, and even whether they can be believed with some incredulous commentators refusing to accept that the world's most powerful country could ever lose so much confidential information. Some have even suggested it was a put up job by the Americans themselves.

But so far there have been no major political casualties, despite the deeply critical remarks of Hamid Karzai made by his own senior ministers and the US ambassador.

The Afghan president has publicly thrown his support behind Omar Zakhiwal, his finance minister who was quoted in cables describing his boss as "extremely weak man". But a cabinet reshuffle is expected after the new parliament is inaugurated.

Also thought to be vulnerable is Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador who wrote at times despairing notes back to Washington about Karzai.

The Afghan and US governments have insisted their relationship remains strong but former US ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has publicly said Eikenberry's position is untenable.

Many believe there is now no chance that he will extend his soon to expire two year term, if he wanted to.

India

In India the reaction to WikiLeaks was initially muted or positive, though the revelations were covered by all sectors of the press, including the local language media. "The first lot of WikiLeaks documents paints a flattering picture of India as a reliable, trusted and respected power in a world that worries itself sick about neighbouring Pakistan," the Times of India newspaper said. Coverage focused on revelations from Pakistan and particularly about Islamabad's security services' relationship with local Islamic extremists. India's external affairs ministry refused to comment on the leak other than to stress its continuing "candid" dialogue with the United States. As the week has passed criticism, both of Western countries and of the leak, has built up, particularly as police in the UK moved to arrest the Wikileaks founder. "The way these governments have been going after Assange and his group raises the question whether what is commonly called the free world is really free," said the Mumbai-based newspaper Daily News Analysis. Others attacked those behind the leak. "There is a strong feeling that the sense of responsibility lacks," union law minister Veerappa Moily told The Guardian yesterday (Wednesday). "This just creates mutual misunderstanding. The trust is endangered by such leaks and that is a very unhealthy trend." Shashi Tharoor, former minister of state for external affairs, called the leaks "unethical and wrong".

"The confidentiality of government communications is the lifeblood of diplomatic comfort," Tharoor told a local reporter. "You do not effectively run a government if your own diplomats cannot report to their own capitals in utter candour." Other commentators however called for an Indian version of the leak, arguing that the Indian bureaucracy was one of the most opaque in the world and could only benefit from public scrutiny. ends

Bangladesh

Julian Assange and WikiLeaks have been on the front page of most newspapers in Bangladesh over the last week. The story has been of particular interest to the country's many students who thronged street tea stalls in Dhaka, the capital, to discuss "how WikiLeaks has shaken the US administration by revealing its confidential cables", according to one local journalist. Anis Pervez, an associate professor at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, said he had discussed the leaks in his classroom lecture on media ethics. "Every state has sovereignty and sometimes some information can create tension. Then again, there is a dilemma over how much information one should reveal to the public just because he or she has it," he said. One particularly cable alleging that the Islamic extremist group Lashkar-e-Toiba had established sleeper cells in Bangladesh hit headlines. "The information divulged on the WikiLeaks is creating an odd situation for many countries. We have not yet checked the documents found regarding Bangladesh," said Yafeash Osman, state minister for science and technology, said.

Nepal

In Nepal there has therefore been some disappointment that most of the 2,600 documents that were sent from the US Embassy in Kathmandu have not yet to be released. The leaks sparked frantic efforts by Nepali politicians as well as journalists to find out what revelations about the Himalayan nation could be expected with journalists offices in Kathmandu bombarded by calls from politicians and leaderships seeking tips on what might be coming. As elsewhere released cables have been scoured for elements of local interest. Documents suggesting that Maoist rebels had received Indian funding provoked an inevitably strongly worded reaction from Nepal's Maoist party. Other cables touching on the relations between regional giants China and India have also been minutely scrutinised.

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, the leaks provoked a political and media storm as many focused on the island nation's controversial and bloody recent history. While one effectively accused President Mahinda Rajapaksa of being complicit in war crimes – a charge he denies – another described a diplomatic campaign by British former foreign secretary David Miliband to champion aid and human rights during the Sri Lankan humanitarian crisis last year as largely driven by domestic political calculations. Media reactions have varied. Newspapers loyal to the government have covered the various allegations made in the cables but have particularly focused on material that is embarrassing to the US or the UK The campaigning Sunday Leader however published a call to journalistic arms: "As media acquired books, the powerful enacted bans. As media developed newspapers, the powerful found ways to seal them in courts or seduce them with access and wealth. Through all this one force, however, is constant. You can't keep a good story down. You can't stop the thirst for justice, you can only mask it for a while. This is a lesson that WikiLeaks is teaching the world, and we hope that it will reach Sri Lankan ears."

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