How Arab governments tried to silence WikiLeaks
Friday 17, December 2010
An appetite for state secrets led to bans on western newspapers and hacked news websites across the Middle East
WikiLeaks may be breaking new ground to promote freedom of information by releasing leaked US diplomatic cables, but Arab governments have been resorting to old tricks to ensure that nothing too damaging reaches their subjects.
Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Morocco have all tried to stem the flow of Wiki-revelations, whether the subject is corruption, authoritarianism or simply the embarrassment of having private exchanges with American interlocutors enter the public domain.
There is certainly an appetite for reading state secrets.
Stories about the business interests of the king of Morocco and the nepotism of the unpopular president of Tunisia – both countries normally attract little interest in Britain - generated heavy traffic on the Guardian website.
But Le Monde, whose Francophone audience cares far more about the Maghreb, found its print edition banned from Morocco.
Spain's El Pais, another of the five media partners in the WikiLeaks enterprise, was banned too. So was Al-Quds Al-Arabi, the independent London-based pan-Arab daily which has been following up on the stories from the start.
Elaph, a Saudi-run website, was mysteriously hacked when it ran a piece about King Abdullah's sensational calls on the US to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear programme.
Lebanon's Al-Akhbar , a leftist and pro-Hizbullah paper, pulled off quite a trick: it somehow obtained unauthorised leaks from the WikiLeaks cache, posting 250 US cables from eight Arab countries on its website – only to find that it was cyber-attacked (and replaced by a shimmering pink Saudi girl chat room) when it published one of two devastatingly frank documents about President Ben Ali of Tunisia, who reinforced his country's reputation as the most internet-unfriendly in the region. "This is a professional job," said publisher Hassan Khalil, "not the work of some geek sitting in his bedroom."
In Arab countries where the media is state-controlled and even privately owned outlets exercise self-censorship to stay within well-defined red lines, outright censorship is usually a last resort.
So in Egypt, for example, there was little coverage of WikiLeaked material about the presidential succession, the role of the army and Hosni Mubarak's hostility to Hamas – all highly sensitive issues, though the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm did run some cables that were passed on by Al-Akhbar in Beirut.
In Syria, where newspapers are state-controlled, and the only privately owned paper is owned by a wealthy and powerful regime crony, one official insisted there was nothing discomfiting in WikiLeaks because "what we say behind closed doors is exactly the same as what we advocate publicly".
That's true enough when it comes to fierce hostility to any criticism of Syria's domestic affairs and its support for the "resistance" in Lebanon and Palestine. But the cables did show President Bashar al-Assad bluntly denying all knowledge of Scud missile deliveries to Hezbollah in the face of what the Americans called "disturbing and weighty evidence to the contrary".
Pro-western Jordan escaped serious embarrassment but Yemen's government faced awkward questions in parliament about its private admission of lying about US air strikes against al-Qaida – as well as concern that President Ali Abdullah Saleh's fondness for whisky would give ammunition to his Islamist critics. No one knew quite what to make of a document showing he had asked the Saudi air force to target the HQ of a senior Yemeni army commander.
Overall, Arab reactions to the WikiLeaks flood have been a mixture of the dismissive and the fascinated.
Some wondered why there are so few damaging revelations about Israel – giving rise to at least one conspiracy theory about collusion between Julian Assange and Binyamin Netanyahu. Others were disgusted if not really surprised at evidence of double-talk by the leaders who are quoted in the cables.
In many cases, it is striking to see the contrast between well-informed, warts-and-all American assessments of the Arab autocracies and the limited efforts made by the US to promote democracy and human rights.
Standing back to survey the big picture as the WikiLeaks effect fades in the Middle East, there are two other striking conclusions: one is the enormous scale of the US effort to contain Iran and its friends. The other – related – one is the sheer intimacy of US links to Israel.
The much-remarked dearth of documents about the Palestinian issue reflects still relatively low US priorities, a lack of contact with Hamas-ruled Gaza, and ties with Israel that are conducted through secure defence and intelligence channels or directly with the White House.
The US embassy in Tel Aviv is an inadequate prism through which to view a genuinely special relationship. No wonder that Netanyahu, unlike many Arab leaders, hasn't been too bothered by what WikiLeaks told us.