The South Asia Channel

Pakistan’s non-reaction to Wikileaks

On the morning of July 26 I woke up at home in Karachi, nine hours ahead of eastern time, to an e-mail from an American friend who writes for The Atlantic’s website. "How is WikiLeaks playing in Pakistan?" he wanted to know. The story had broken overnight, and I had no idea what he was ...

LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

On the morning of July 26 I woke up at home in Karachi, nine hours ahead of eastern time, to an e-mail from an American friend who writes for The Atlantic’s website. "How is WikiLeaks playing in Pakistan?" he wanted to know. The story had broken overnight, and I had no idea what he was talking about. In turn I picked up Dawn, The News, and The Express Tribune, the three Pakistani newspapers that are delivered to my house every day. Not one of them had anything to say on the issue.

It was another matter entirely when I logged onto my computer and the New York Times website. For the next several hours I was transfixed, trying to digest both the firestorm in the international media and the pin-drop silence at home.

The most likely explanation of this is that the story broke too late to make it into Pakistani newspapers on Monday morning. The conspiracy-minded might argue it could have been suppressed, perhaps even in advance, by the Pakistani state, or that domestic newspapers would not want to jump into dangerous territory without taking the time to examine the matter closely. Either way, the silence continued almost unbroken throughout the day.

By early afternoon the websites of dailies Dawn and The Express Tribune carried only one story each; both were wire reports. Later in the day they had each added one more. The News, which vies with Dawn for the top circulation spot among English-language newspapers, remained silent on the issue. When I turned on the television, news channels were focusing on domestic stories. Even the small group of Pakistani journalists and analysts who are usually quick to Twitter about politics and current affairs didn’t seem to be particularly interested. While the Western media tied itself into knots over the implications for the war in Afghanistan and for how information gets disseminated today, Pakistan maintained a stony silence.  

On Tuesday the indifference hadn’t fully worn away. Only two of five English-language dailies, which are generally considered less right-wing than Urdu newpapers, carried editorials on the issue, and many newspaper reports were still based on wire stories rather than their own reporting or analysis. It was earlier today, finally, that the issue began to get some fraction of the coverage it has been getting in the West.

Tuesday’s front pages show one reason why. Alongside the WikiLeaks story, and sometimes as the main lead, appeared the deadly suicide bombing outside the home of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s Information Minster, an outspoken critic of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and a member of the secular ANP party that governs the province. Tragically, it targeted a gathering held to mourn the loss of his young son, who was killed at gunpoint just two days earlier in an incident the TTP claimed responsibility for. Another major story crammed onto the front page was about a 10-rupee-per-kilogram rise in the price of government-subsidized sugar, an increase that sounds minimal but, following massive earlier price hikes resulting in part from government inability to manage food supplies, has real and troubling implications for a population that can now barely afford anything beyond wheat and vegetables. Amidst the Western media’s focus on Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, the war’s political implications for Barack Obama and how Afghanistan is carpeted with Taliban IEDs, Pakistan simply has too much at home to worry about. Perceptions of the country in the West take a back seat when severe electricity shortages, spiraling food prices and devastating terrorist attacks confront us every day.  

There is also, as Mosharraf Zaidi pointed out in The News in the rare (if not only) column on the issue on Tuesday, the country’s lack of surprise any time the Pakistani intelligence service the ISI and the Taliban are mentioned in the same sentence. As a result of lingering suspicion of the U.S., the narrative here is not so much denying ISI involvement as it is resentful of American focus on that aspect of the leaks amidst all the material available, and of what could be considered unreliable evidence about the spy agency’s actions. The first news reports to acknowledge the issue jumped straight to this secondary point instead of telling the story of the leaks itself: "US condemns leak alleging Pakistan spy-insurgent links" and "ISI denounces leaked intel documents" were the headlines of the stories on news websites on Monday. Editorials on Tuesday and Wednesday have focused heavily on the non-Pakistan aspects of the leaks, such as civilian casualties and the Taliban’s stranglehold on Afghanistan, and expressed doubts about reports on ISI collusion. And when the New York Times led with the Pakistan angle while the Guardian focused on civilian deaths and more strongly emphasized the questionable nature of material about the ISI, these choices fed into the perception that U.S. media reports about the story were simply hype, if not biased.

My exchange with a fellow Pakistani journalist on Monday was telling. In a series of e-mails that afternoon, we wondered what the motive was behind the leaks and their timing — was this really the work of a lone conscientious objector, or even a group of them, who were somehow able to release 90,000 documents that included details on classified military action and the struggling war strategy of NATO and the U.S.? Or was it a larger political move to hurt Obama before mid-term elections in November? Was it done deliberately by the White House, which subsequently pointed out that the reports covered the time period before Obama took office and therefore vindicated his new strategy? Was this the Pentagon trying to put pressure on the ISI, or a U.S. government attempt to curb Pakistan’s role in Afghan Taliban reconciliation, and hence its growing influence over Karzai?

This is one stereotype about Pakistanis that is true. We have grown up as a security state run by the military and intelligence agencies, with a co-dependent yet troubled relationship with the U.S., and our instinct is to question the obvious version of any story. One could argue, in that vein, that some media outlets here initially suppressed this one under either implicit or explicit state pressure. But amidst daily tragedy, and in an atmosphere of enduring mistrust of the U.S., the story never really had a chance.

Madiha Sattar is a senior assistant editor at the Karachi-based monthly The Herald.

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