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Lessons from the WikiLeaks secrets

CLAUDE ROBINSON

Sunday, June 12, 2011    

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With The Gleaner having published only a handful of the WikiLeaks cables in its possession, it is too early to assess fully their political and diplomatic significance. However, it is already clear the revelations have further damaged the image of Prime Minister Bruce Golding and cast Opposition Leader Portia Simpson Miller in an unflattering light.

Mr Golding has been characterised as an uncertain ally in the fight against organised crime; and the cables raised questions as to whether his administration was serious about addressing Jamaica's crime problems and whether garrison dons and criminal elements had captured his Government.

Mrs Simpson Miller has been cast as the weak president of the People's National Party under whose leadership "the PNP appears to be a sinking ship with no captain at the helm".

We know that information in the cables reflect the opinions of individual American diplomats at a particular time; in some cases, several years ago. So they are not official US policy and the writers may have different opinions today.

We also know that the full story in the cables is yet to be told. According to Christopher Barnes, managing director of The Gleaner, the company acquired 1,700 cables from WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing organisation that got unauthorised access to some 250,000 cables sent to Washington by US diplomats serving in more than 200 countries around the world.

In an interview reported in the Daily Observer on Friday, he said only 38 cables have been published so far. However, within the context of national security considerations and the country's libel laws, more will be coming. Readers seem to like what they are getting and it may even be contributing to improving the company's bottom line.

Based on the first 38, we can expect information and insights hitherto unknown. Will there be greater clarity to the Government's handling of the US request for the extradition of former West Kingston strongman Christopher 'Dudus' Coke? Are there cables that will bring greater clarity to the report of the Dudus/Manatt enquiry to be tabled in the House of Representatives Tuesday?

What we know now is that the publications have earned what The Gleaner managing director called "the wrath of some political quarters". It will be recalled that the prime minister recently used a political platform to launch a counter-attack on The Gleaner. He raised three important points.

First, publication was unethical because the information was property stolen from the United States; second, publication was selective in an effort to unfairly target persons in his Government and members of the Opposition who are not liked by the "powerbrokers of North Street"; and third, publication was part of a Gleaner attempt to harass the Government and oust it from power.

On the matter of ethics and journalistic principles, the issue for resolution was whether the information published met the 'public interest' test.

Meeting the public interest test

The draft Code of Practice of the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ), drawing on standard international practice, defines the public interest as information aimed at "detecting or exposing crime or a serious misdemeanour; protecting public health and safety; and preventing the public being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organisation".

The wide range of matters covered in the cables easily meets the test. They included matters such as whether dons and criminals had taken over Jamaica during the nine-month row between the US and Jamaica over the extradition of Christopher 'Dudus' Coke; and unease about certain persons in the then ruling PNP administration in a position to "wield influence" over Mrs Simpson Miller.

Further, parliamentarians on both sides in the House appeared willing to share with US diplomats what they know or think about people on their side, on the other side, or about Jamaica generally.

Some cables also revealed the dark underbelly of Jamaican politics with visions of senior party officials 'encouraging' the use of dons in garrison communities to disturb or keep the peace, depending on what was perceived to be the party interest at the time.

On the matter on selective attacks on persons perceived to be acting against the class interests of the 'powerbrokers', the prime minister would have to show which policies and actions of which politicians would meet that test.

If 'powerbrokers' is a narrower reference to big media influence, the JLP leader should remember the events leading up to the 1980 election when The Gleaner took sides in what was seen as a contest between socialism and capitalism.

No howls came from the JLP that time about the 'powerbrokers of North Street' unfairly targeting politicians they did not like.

Now, Mr Golding is charging that critics inside and outside Jamaica want to see the end of his administration. We know that embattled leaders often blame the media for their troubles when they are in Government, but praise the valiant role of the media in a democracy when they are seeking power. That's just the way of the world.

On the related issue of using 'stolen' documents in defence of the public interest, democracy and good governance, Mr Golding -- as leader of the opposition -- settled that for many Jamaicans in 2006 when he stoutly defended the use of purloined bank documents to bring the Trafigura matter to light.

While the cables are not official US policy they provide important information and insight into the diplomatic traffic between Kingston and Washington and the attitudes of US diplomats to political personalities and issues. They may explain who gets and who does not get a photo-opportunity with President Barack Obama.

They also provide a glimpse of the use of diplomatic pressure by the world's sole superpower to promote its interest globally. They also reveal that our leaders will stand up to the pressure from time to time. We saw examples of such conduct by Golding, Simpson Miller and former Prime Minister PJ Patterson. But the cables also reveal that our leaders have little room for manoeuvre, especially when they are vulnerable.

kcr@cwjamaica.com

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