Media freedom is by no means the first issue that would have arisen in the minds of Guyanese with the advent of the WikkiLeaks phenomenon. Issues of secrecy, confidentiality and the public’s right to know would have been matters of much greater concern for the United States government, its media houses and its security institutions.
The Obama administration in Washington would have been chastened and more than a trifle embarrassed by the fact that the confidentiality of hundreds of thousands of its diplomatic cables, tools which, to a greater or lesser extent, help to fashion its foreign policy, had found their way into the public domain. The medium of communication might have been the ‘information super highway;’ the process though bore an uncanny resemblance of the street corner distribution of fliers.
America’s concern over WikkiLeaks would have been acute if for no other reason than the fact that 9/11 had engendered an enhanced official mindfulness of the importance of confidentiality in the management of information; though the fact that an estimated 850,000 American bureaucrats and other state officials possess top security clearances surely raises questions regarding the ever present danger that, at one level or another, security might not be compromised.
While the earlier ‘dribble’ of what seemed like a controlled dissemination of the WikkiLeaks cables appeared to have been endorsed by sections of the American media, the subsequent opening of the floodgates brought a swift change of heart. Washing huge bundles of Washington’s foreign policy linen in public became more than what even the fiercest adherents of the public’s right to know could bear. WikkiLeaks came to resemble libertarianism gone mad and the long knives were unsheathed against Julian Assange, the owner of WikkiLeaks. Having at first determined that WikkiLeaks was playing a “useful role” the organization Reporters Without Frontiers came to regard the wholesale dissemination of the cables as an act of “incredible irresponsibility.” There was talk of treason.
The advent of WikkiLeaks would have impacted on Guyana in an altogether different way. For a start, the sudden and unexpected access to an unending stream of US Embassy diplomatic correspondence containing supposedly confidential assessments of the social, economic and political goings-on in Guyana, would have generated an uncontainable level of media interest if for no other reason than the fact that It marked a radical departure from the culture of secrecy that characterizes the management of information by the state. Getting to know what the United States Embassy in Georgetown was thinking and saying about everyday happenings in Guyana would have been, from the standpoint of the local media, the stuff that dreams were made of. Why else would the ongoing revelations make media headlines every day except, of course, in the cases of those media houses that are politically forbidden to take the WikkiLeaks traffic seriously. The official pretence, incidentally, that WikkiLeaks comprised no more than idle gossip was a transparent exercise in hypocrisy. Which media house that is alert to news possibilities would not go after cables emanating from the US Embassy, whatever the official perception of the extent of their import? And even if some of it were downgraded to gossip that would still not have completely eroded the newsworthiness of WikkiLeaks.
More than that, Wikkileaks, apart from being a godsend for a local media that labors from day to day to ferret out any morsel of official information that extends much beyond the GINA fare, would have been grist to the mill of a local gossip circuit with a remarkabkt high tolerance level.
Those who think that most of the cables were no more than idle gossip cannot necessarily be blamed for their limited understanding of how foreign policy is fashioned. It is a matter of connecting dots and what one might call the local gossip forms part of the tapestry – sometimes a much more important part than we might imagine – that is eventually fashioned into policy.
Mind you, that is not a comment on the truth and accuracy or otherwise of some of the various claims and assertions made in the cables. The point is, however, that if you do not understand how the dots that comprise the tapestry of foreign policy are put together, you are likely either to take the cables lightly or to dismiss them altogether. The United States State Department, however, would take an entirely different view.
WikkiLeaks also provides us with insights into the remarkable place that the US State Department must. It takes some doing to ‘process’ the myriad cables that arrive in Washington from every host country in which the United States has a diplomatic presence.
Interestingly, much that was said in the cables that emanated from the US embassy here amounted sometimes to no more than variants of stories that had already been doing the rounds in Georgetown. Stories about drug lords and official corruption and extra-judicial killings are no longer news, per se, in the sense that we have heard it all before. There is, however, a distinction to be made between issues that are discussed in bars and homes and offices and street-corners and issues, albeit sometimes even the same ones, that form part of the reporting pattern by the US Embassy to its State Department. It is precisely for the we-have-heard-it-all-before reason that much of what WikkiLeaks had to say about Guyana has not really created much more than a small squall. Even the government, for the most part, paid only selective attention to what WikkiLeaks had to say; and who could blame the government? After all, it must have thought that some of the WikkiLeaks revelations had to do with issues that were behind it.
People have spoken too about the social role of phenomena like WikkiLeaks. Daily life is about drama, and gossip and what people say and do from time to time and that, in some measure, was what WikkiLeaks was about; alleged links between government officials and Roger Khan; the saga of the death squad and the cancellation of Police Commissioner Henry Green’s visa. We thrive on those kinds of revelations and when they come from the US Embassy that makes them ‘official.’ Like it or not, that is how we are.