Media in China, Arab Middle East suppressing WikiLeaks coverage

By Keith B. Richburg and Leila Fadel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; 10:58 PM

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.

In China, the few newspaper stories about the cables that did appear focused mainly on the U.S. government's reaction to the leaks and the possibility that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could face federal charges in the United States.

China's Communist leaders instead seem to be using the WikiLeaks disclosures as a justification for their own tight control of information and broad censorship policies.

"Leaked information could severely damage the social stability of nations that are not able to handle the release of so much sensitive information," China's Global Times wrote. "Countries like China . . . must have a line of defense against a hurtful information campaign."

There was also rife speculation about how so many sensitive documents could have become public - and suspicion, in Beijing and in Arab capitals, that the U.S. government may actually be complicit in the leaks.

"Is there some tacit understanding between the Web site and the U.S. government?" asked the lead editorial in Wednesday's edition of the Global Times, an English-language tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party's newspaper, the People's Daily.

"The powerful and ubiquitous CIA has not been able to identify the source of the sudden leakage of diplomatic secrets," the Global Times said. "It sounds more or less unconvincing."

"It's all deliberate," Mozah al-Malki, a prominent Qatari psychologist, told Qatar's Peninsula newspaper, voicing a common sentiment. "We can clearly see through the ploy. The idea of the so-called leaks is to further intensify tension between Iran" and the Arab gulf states.

One common view in authoritarian countries was that dissidents, pro-democracy activists and others might now be more reticent when speaking to U.S. diplomats, not knowing if their private words might be publicly reported - and leaving them to face reprisals from their governments.

"This leaking incident is a big thing," said Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan poet and blogger who has often run afoul of the government and is regularly under surveillance. "The Chinese government restricts freedom of speech, and an incident like this will make a lot of trouble."

Sami al-Askari, an independent Shiite legislator in Iraq, said, "From now on, every official that talks to the Americans has to take into account this is not a secret anymore."

Fadel reported from Baghdad; correspondent Janine Zacharia in Jerusalem and researcher Wang Juan in Beijing contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company