Latin America After Cablegate: What Changed?
Julian Assange has said that WikiLeaks is an “organization opposed to government abuse of secrecy.” Did the WikiLeaks revelations have an impact on the debate over secrecy versus transparency in your country? Did the release of the cables advance and empower the concept of citizens’ “right to know”?
Skoknic: Well, I’d like to view WikiLeaks as an episode that opens the doors to citizens and organizations to look for new ways to access public information. And, of course, the release of the documents advanced the concept of citizens’ right to know in Chile—but just as a concept. After WikiLeaks, everything seems to remain the same. The US government is actually more secretive than it used to be and is prosecuting whistleblowers more than ever!
Gorriti: In Peru, we already have a strong history of investigative journalists obtaining leaked documents from government sources. So I’d have to say that the debate over transparency was not really advanced.
O’Donnell: While the WikiLeaks revelations did not inspire a debate on transparency and the public’s right to know, they were widely accepted as legitimate journalistic information. In fact, more than an interest in open government and public access to information, the WikiLeaks experience generated a great deal of interest in the profession of journalism, and a debate among journalists and the media community about the handling of this vast amount of material.
In that case, how well do you think the Latin American media did in reporting on the cables?
Gorriti: In Peru’s case, WikiLeaks first gave the cables to the leading newspaper, El Comercio. The owners of that paper were staunchly pro-Fujimori in last year’s election, so they were quite selective, politically speaking, in the stories they chose to publish. In the end, despite the efforts of a number of their journalists, I think they only published five or six stories from the whole collection. When I obtained the cables for IDL-Reporteros, we published a number of stories that were politically relevant, including ones on the arrogant, insulting way the US Embassy had treated our new president, Ollanta Humala, in the past. Publishing some of the things they had said about him put the US Embassy in a very uncomfortable position now that he is president. Had he been Rafael Correa instead of Ollanta Humala, he would have sent the US Ambassador packing
Skoknic: I do think that the cables could have received a bit more coverage. But in Chile, as elsewhere, media outlets are reluctant to quote other media stories, and in this case CIPER had the exclusive. The cables used in our stories were published and made available online to the public and to journalists. In a couple of cases, a Chilean newspaper quoted a news agency that used the cables instead of quoting CIPER directly, even though we had published the information several days earlier.
O’Donnell: It is an amazing fact that much of the WikiLeaks content was not published either by pro-government or opposition newspapers. In general, opposition newspapers only published stories that would be harmful to the government and its allies, and the pro-government newspapers only published stories that damaged opposition figures and their allies. The reason I wrote my book, ArgenLeaks: The WikiLeaks Cables on Argentina, From A to Z, is that my own paper chose not to publish dozens of stories I wrote derived from the cables.
Another key point: the WikiLeaks cables recorded not only politicians talking to US Embassy officials but well-known reporters going in and out of the embassy as well. Yet neither the pro-government nor opposition newspapers published anything related to embassy conversations with journalists and media personalities from the leaked documents. The industry’s self-censorship placed corporate solidarity above the public’s right to know.
A year after the diplomatic dust has settled from “Cablegate,” what do you think is the legacy of the WikiLeaks experience in Latin America?
Skoknic: For me, the most important consequence is that WikiLeaks showed that new technologies can make much easier the access to information that might be relevant for citizens. It also showed that an advocacy group like WikiLeaks can play an important role in making government or private institutions more transparent.
O’Donnell: In my opinion, WikiLeaks’ biggest legacy is not what it revealed about the US role in Latin America but what it reveals about the limitations of the “free press” in the region. Despite access to the cables and their newsworthiness, in Argentina so much information was kept from our readers for one political or commercial reason or another. The very newspapers that were born as watchdogs of the big corporations have become big corporations themselves, with too many conflicts of interest and thus too much to hide. They can no longer act as effective watchdogs. The long-term impact from “Cablegate” is a loss of credibility for the traditional news media and the growing importance of social, alternative and citizen media, as dramatically reflected by the WikiLeaks phenomenon.
Gorriti: Over the long term, we have a large set of documents that will serve as a major database for many stories to come. But a key legacy of the WikiLeaks phenomenon is the fact that American diplomacy stood naked before the eyes of the world, at least for a while. It was an involuntary nakedness for a country usually very well dressed—well covered up, shall we say. That provided a short thrill.