No audience for leaked cables in China and the Arab world
Thursday, December 2, 2010
BEIJING - Revelations by the organization WikiLeaks have received blanket coverage this week on television, in newspapers and on Web sites around the globe. But in parts of the world where the leaks have some of the greatest potential to sow controversy, they have barely caused a ripple.
Authoritarian governments and tightly controlled media in China and across the Arab Middle East have suppressed virtually all mention of the documents, avoiding the public backlash that could result from such candid portrayals of their leaders' views.
In China, the WikiLeaks site has been blocked by the government's "Great Firewall," and access to other sources for the documents has been restricted. Most Chinese are unable to read the contents of the diplomatic cables - including reports that China's Politburo ordered the hacking of Google's computer system and that Chinese leaders expressed frustration that ally North Korea was behaving like a "spoiled child."
In many Arab countries, the mainstream media have largely avoided reporting on the sensitive contents of the cables, including accounts of Arab leaders drinking alcohol and siding with Israel in advocating a U.S. military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
"Most Arabs don't know what's come out in these WikiLeaks documents," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center. "If they did know, there would be an angry reaction."
He added that opposition Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt might try to capitalize on documents that underscore their arguments that Arab leaders are subservient to the United States and that they do not reflect the interests of their own people.
In Egypt and the larger Arab world, the massive collection of State Department documents has created a quandary for the media, said Hisham Qasim, an independent newspaper publisher and media analyst in Egypt. "They're still trying to figure this out, and there is definitely some censorship and self-censorship," he said.
In many Arab countries, criticizing a leader is a line that must not be crossed; in Jordan, it is illegal to criticize the king. Most mainstream Arab media outlets are government-owned, and the portion of the public with Internet access is far lower than it is in China and the West.
Newspapers in the region this week have largely relied on brief wire service articles about the diplomatic cables and devoted little space to commentary or original reporting.
"Give it a day or two and we'll see if they deal with this or take a rain check," Qasim said.
Although the mainstream Arab media shied away from the story, a lively debate is underway on Facebook and Twitter and in online newspapers.
"This may be a critical test of the real impact of Arabic social media and the Internet: can it break through a wall of silence and reach mass publics if the mass media doesn't pick up the story?" Marc Lynch, associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, wrote on his Foreign Policy blog.