'WikiLeaks controversy can alter diplomatic, media landscapes'

By Caroline J. Howard, ANC

Posted at Dec 06 2010 06:16 PM | Updated as of Dec 07 2010 03:20 AM

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATE) - Observers in the Philippines say the WikiLeaks controversy could alter diplomatic communications and the journalistic landscape.

"What you have is a classic Catch-22 situation. To know if these cables are true, you would have US government saying, yes, they're true. If they say they're true, it would cause so much complications, so it's better for them to say they're not true," said Presidential Communications Operations Office Undersecretary Manolo Quezon on ANC's "Headstart" on Monday.

"The [inter]net is discovering a lot more vulnerable to government pressure. This is driving the agony many people fear we don't necessarily have to support WikiLeaks to be troubled by the effects by the assumptions," Quezon says.

"What moves between the U.S. and anyone who deals with them, no one knows where they stand, no one knows what might emerge or what dots might be connected later on."

"This is going to make it tougher to get information from any government. Governments will review their policies." he said. "It's going to feed conspiracy theories, on the other hand, it can lead to a greater appreciation of how tough it is to be a diplomat."

He noted that some in the academic community in Ateneo de Manila University (AdMU) had voiced apprehensions about the implications of Wikileaks.

"Six months, and other journalists were already talking about it, as a threat to them because this was already at the time being the mother of all scoops for so many other stories about so many other things," he said.

Redefining democracy, press freedom

"What's happening now is it's redefining what democracy and freedom of the press is. The US government, which has been known to uphold freedom of expression is running after, shutting down sites. This is defining landscapes and definitions," Maria Ressa, former head of ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs (NCAD).

"No one who isn't a journalist or in state affairs can actually know how damaging one of these documents can be. There was one estimate that said it could take 70 years to process this amount of information," Ressa added.

Numerous world leaders have condemned the leaks, while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has directly blamed the US government for it.  The online whistle-blower had revealed how Arab states are asking the US to take a stronger stand against Iran.

Ressa noted, while over 1,400 cables pertain to the Philippines, there are more cables referring to politically-sensitive nations including Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar.

"It strips all of the diplomats political cover. It's a breach of trust on all fronts... How can the US assure their partners that their private conversations based on trust will not come out publicly?" Ressa said.

"You have to make the distinction between public accountability of government and the personal accountability people who are working for governments."

Reexamination of diplomatic communication

Ressa said the WikiLeaks controversy could prompt a reexamination of how diplomats are going to communicate from hereon.

"What will happen for governments that are trying to solve issues that are really complex? There's a lack of trust which may mean this will not resolve these issues as efficiently."

Ressa added the resulting sense of paranoia will trigger international repercussions, particularly changes in the sphere of diplomatic relations.

"The US is going to be moving diplomats around now... The impact is, you have specialists in each region. These specialists have written these cables. Those specialists will have to move since they won't be effective in these posts. You'll have more inexperienced US diplomats in each of the posts they're in now," she said.

Changing the face of journalism

Aside from changing the landscape of diplomatic exchange, she added that `cablegate,' which leaked sans the benefit of prior information screening could also change the face of journalism.

"This is our heydey. This will define what journalism is. It will help define it, and what new technology and the internet will do to information gathering and give citizens the ability. The facade has been ripped off. Anyone can interpret this information."

Under similar circumstances and access to the same material, Ressa said she would've analyzed them, and would've come out with individual stories that would be very specific

She added it would've taken her far longer to come up with a digested and rational reporting on the issues involved.

Online whistle-blower, WikiLeaks, is the subject of controversy after its founder Julian Assange leaked some 250,000 US diplomatic cables bearing sensitive information, supposedly collected by a soldier in Iraq over an 8-month period.

"It's a fascinating story of what's happening to the man who's doing it, and what governments can do together. He's also challenging governments and stripping away a veneer of civilized diplomacy of what was in place before," Ressa said.

The fate of Assange

Assange is now a the target of legal action. But, Quezon believes, the WikiLeaks founder will not face the harshest hand of the law.

"Given the very strong European sense of human rights against the very strong U.S. sense of national security, I don't think he will be as punished as what the Americans would want, but Europeans will feel he's overpunished to the extent that irritates the Americans," Quezon said.

Assange has turned to Switzerland's credit, postal and internet infrastructure to keep his online trove of U.S. State Department cables afloat.

Amid hundreds of supposed death threats, supporters say Assange is considering seeking asylum in Switzerland.