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Secrecy in Government -Media Relations

By Dr Bukar Usman


The worst leakage of United States of America's diplomatic reports by Wikileaks in November 2010 has again brought the usually sour government-media relations to the fore. The main focus is the level of confidentiality in governance preferred by dishonest politicians and the burning desire by the media and the consumers of their products for more access to official information.

    Julian Assange, the Australian who heads Wikileaks website, maintains eloquently that information should be free and that ‘confidentiality in government is an affront to the governed.' Most media operators excitingly welcome Mr Assange's action as one positive step in their continuing hide and seek relationship with the authorities over freedom of information. Officials on the other hand have become more apprehensive about the proven vulnerability of confidentiality in governance. Facilitated by technology and competent hackers like Assange, government secrets are now open secrets.   

    Wikileaks said it has 251,287 documents, many of which were marked ‘confidential' or ‘secret.'  90,000 US classified documents were leaked initially; more are likely to be published. The volume of what was released in total into the public domain is said to be more than what the rest of the world press ever published. Wikileaks has now obtained documents from the secretive world of banking and publishing such material will represent another big blow to the moneyed establishment, tax evaders, thieving foreign leaders and to some extent, drug barons who have developed a well-organised money laundering capability beyond mundane law enforcement agencies.

    Aljazeera, the powerful television station with headquarters in the Middle East has published several Palestinian/Israeli classified negotiation documents which exposed the depth of the hypocrisy which guided some Palestinian leaders and questioned their credentials as true Palestinian patriots.   

    The US was the country most hit and exposed in an embracing manner by the disclosures. In a typical American reaction to perceived offenders, it went for Wikileaks' accounts. It is also pressing for Assange's extradition from Britain to the US for trial. Other affected countries are managing the fallouts of Assange's courage and game-changing expose in their own way. The rape allegation brought against him in Sweden appears to be an afterthought and diversionary, if not an exercise in witch-hunting by a modern State on promptings by a friendly country, most probably the US. The world is not fooled.  His sin was the exposure of the double-faced diplomacy of what remains of a world power in decline.

     In its damage control, the US assures that what was published were ‘raw materials' for decision making and not the real policy. The rest of the world says, tell that to the marines. It is also taking measures to protect its officials and redeploy some of them where it has become unavoidable. Where its military interests are in jeopardy, the US must now review its strategies and tactics.

    Nigeria is among the countries affected by the disclosures to a limited extent. At least, the public now knows what transpired between the then Acting President Goodluck Jonathan and the former US Ambassador to Nigeria, Ms. Robin Sanders on one hand and the latter's discussion with the Shell regional executive vice president for Africa, Ann Pickard, on the other hand. Members of the so-called cabal in President Yar'Adua's administration, the circumstances of Prof Maurice Iwu's hurried departure from INEC, Nigeria-US partnership against terrorism, US opposition to Amb. Ibrahim Gambari's UN assignment in Myanmar, and alleged planting of moles in government establishments by multinational oil companies as well as their interest in the Petroleum Industry Bill were all exposed and now known to the Nigerian public.

    The Nigerian public is the wiser for all this disclosures, although it should be taken for granted that multinationals with worldwide interests and which command enormous fortunes more than several sovereign countries should take more than casual interest in matters affecting countries where they derive a huge portion of the enormous fortunes at their disposal. Ambassador Robin Sanders had concluded her duty tour in Nigeria and gone back to her native land, otherwise it would have been difficult for her to operate in an environment that has changed so dramatically after the disclosures. This applies to other US diplomats elsewhere whose effectiveness at post would have been curtailed in like manner.

     As it relates to the conduct of diplomatic relations and governance generally, the disclosures have raised a number of questions and evoked several comments by officials, media men and current affairs analysts regarding the status of Assange as an individual and the impact of the leakage by Wikileaks. Call him names and whatever you want. However, Mr. Assange simply describes himself as a ‘publisher and editor-in-chief' who ‘directs other journalists' in his team.

     Among the most informed commentaries I read on the Wikileaks episode is one put up by Eluem Emeka Izeze, Managing Director, Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian on behalf of the paper's editorial Board on December 10, 2010. The paper not only declared Julian Assange its ‘Man Of The Year 2010' for being so daring but also concluded that his action has raised the bar of public accountability and demystified bureaucracy such that ‘governments may no longer function the way we knew them.'

      Columnist Olatunji Dare seems to reason along the same line when he states that ‘Assange's disclosures and prospects of more of the same have the potential of launching us on the road to the brave new world...The fear of Assange, then, will be the beginning of diplomatic wisdom. Candour will supplant duplicity, blackmail and hypocrisy in relations among nations. Diplomats will have a simple choice: speak candidly, or shut up. If you dissemble, you will be unmasked,' (The Nation, January 4, 2011, p.64). Mr Dare has a point, although he seems overly optimistic on the constraints on diplomatic conduct. However, every nation and diplomat is bound to adjust under the present circumstances.

     State and commercial secrets could now more easily be obtained through espionage, using digital technology from remote locations, while governments have been put in a situation where they must declassify official documents periodically, if not pre-emptively. Diplomats traditionally interact with their hosts with etiquette and send confidential reports to their home governments in inviolable diplomatic bags or encrypted electronically. Host countries too,  aware of the tricks disguised under diplomacy, take due care to safeguard their interests in their interactions with members of the diplomatic community as generally guided by Geneva and Vienna Conventions on diplomatic relations.

     As it has now become clear that such record of interactions sent supposedly thorough secure channels could easily end up in wrong hands even though on a lesser scale than Wikileaks, officials will definitely be extra vigilant and more watchful of their utterances. What was known by a limited few who discussed in hushed tones in secure rooms has now become public property. Henceforth, the tendency would be to further fortify and make access to official information more difficult. The challenge is greater on the world powers which have a lot of information to transmit and at the same time wish to keep restricted.

      To drastically cut down on the dangers inherent in the transmission of reports electronically and in hard copies, we are also likely to see more summits as a more reliable form of diplomatic contact as heads of state and governments travel to talk with each other directly. Former president Olusegun Obasanjo's much criticised diplomatic travelling would become a child's play. Indeed, it is not only the foreign minister's role but also the roles of ambassadors extraordinary and plenipotentiary that has been made less relevant by globalisation and digital communication.

      As for the overall lessons learnt from the Wikileaks expose, I tend to agree with the views expressed by the Leadership newspaper editorial opinion in the December 7, 2011 edition. It says that while the media basks in euphoria of the Wikileaks disclosure which has redefined diplomacy and secrecy, ‘unrestricted freedom means no freedom. In the Information Age, the challenge to strike a balance has become obvious,' and that ‘there is need for freedom to be accompanied always by responsibility.'

     Divergent views on press freedom and responsibility are likely to remain the factor governing government-media relations in matters of confidentiality and transparency.


  February 17, 2011




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