The view from inside Mediastan

mediastan-the-documentary-about-wikileaks-that-assange-does-want-you-to-see-trailer-700x500The Kyrgyz have a proverb which goes, “Balaluu üi bazar; balasyz üi mazar”: “When there are children, the house is a bazaar; When there are no children, the house is a cemetery.” Although intended as an admonition for people doubting whether they want to become parents, it’s equally fitting as a warning to governments about the dangers of limiting the freedom of the press.

However, what Julian Assange and Johannes Wahlström seem to have discovered in their new film Mediastan is that there are, and shall always, be limits to the press – the expected political, legal, and financial limits, but also cultural, cognitive, and ethical limits. And as they endeavor to argue in the American context, it’s also dreadfully easy to mistake a mazar for a bazaar.

I’ve been asked by whether I have any reactions to the film. They came to me because a little over two years ago, I published an academic essay about WikiLeaks’ complicated impact upon the region. I’ve decided to take this as an opportunity to update some of the things I said therein, as well as to articulate what I imagine will be the view on Mediastan from within Mediastan itself.

Today is Kurman Ait (Eid al-Adha), the Feast of the Sacrifice in the Muslim faith. It’s a universal holiday commemorating the necessity of sacrifice in the name of one’s beliefs and for the sake of the greater good. So, I suppose it’s an appropriate day on which to pen this review, since journalism should be, first and foremost, about such self-sacrifice.

In the spirit of sacrifice, then, I ask viewers to spend their hard-earned dollars, euros, rubles, tenge, etc. on Mediastan, rather than waste them on the Hollywood spectacle The Fifth Estate. In the least, reviews of the latter indicate that you will have a much more meaningful experience from the former. And even if you strongly disagree with Assange and his belief system, you should nonetheless trust the Kyrgyz proverb: ultimately, it’s definitely better to have those noisy children from WikiLeaks in the house than not.

But no matter which film you choose to see, keep the critical faculties of your cerebral cortex activated. For instance, Mediastan has been criticized as anti-American “agitprop” and biased by some, but this is an empty and facile criticism. The entire purpose of Mediastan is to raise questions – certain questions that arise from a certain perspective, yes, even a certain bias.

Boots on the ground

A complex film requires a complex reaction, and I’m afraid that I’ll only be able to point out a few things. From a Central Asian perspective as I understand it, there’s good news and bad news for the film. The good news is that the record has been set straight on at least one very important thing: it turns out that WikiLeaks was physically here when the American diplomatic cables began to be published.

Judging from the Tajikistan and Kazakhstan segments of the film, I would guess Wahlström’s team arrived shortly after Assange’s detention in December 2010 to around when the Tajikistan office of Asia-Plus publicly announced its partnership with WikiLeaks in May 2011.

(Note: during their journey, they met the hunger strikers in Zhanoezen, it seems several months before the terrible riots. What follows is a truly frightening segment in the film, in which one can see the power of journalism gone awry, as images of the harsh police crackdown are juxtaposed with a Russian media narration giving a very different version of events.)

The WikiLeakers’ presence is crucial because, as I explained in the essay, many Central Asian journalists indicated to me that they felt their community had been passed over back in 2010 and 2011. For them, it seemed as if WikiLeaks wasn’t living up to its core principles, and that it had rendered their countries into pawns of yet another Great Game, this one between a cypherpunk and the White House.

It turns out the story is more complicated than that, as the WikiLeakers were actively seeking – and largely failing to find – partners on the ground. They did so quietly, which is why so few of us working in and on Central Asia heard about them being here, even when we were close to some of the people they contacted.

How deep the Tajik traffic tunnel goes

However, their methods, at least as depicted in their own film, appear to have been problematic. The film gives the impression that they were seeking the very news entities whom the United States Department of State itself had implicitly or otherwise identified as, in one of the WikiLeakers’ phraseology, “natural partners” in the region. If this was indeed their plan, it was a very paradoxical strategy. For many, many reasons.

Certainly, from a results-oriented perspective, their strategy was probably self-defeating. It would be interesting to see the material that was cut from the film, so as to have an idea of who else the WikiLeakers talked to. That’s because, as much as I would defend at least the intentions of some of those in the film, I would also say that Wahlström and his team simply went to many of the wrong entities.

To be clear, the WikiLeakers did go to some of the right entities, too. However, even then, it seems to me that, despite having some in-region experience, they underestimated just how deep the rabbit hole (or the Tajik traffic tunnel, to use the film’s own visual metaphor) really goes in Central Asia.

Cultures here tend to be characterized by their devotion to the art of discretion, to put it both euphemistically and sincerely. Only a few days before Mediastan was released, a group of young Kyrgyz law students were picking my brain about the merits and demerits of Assange’s belief system and of exposing so many secrets all at once. They wondered: would social-political systems really change just because of embarrassment? They were doubtful.

And this is to say nothing of the huge geopolitical forces at work here, and I don’t only mean those emanating out from Washington, D.C. I hesitate to rehearse the tired Great Game discourse, but the realities here, as much inner as outer, are very dangerous for local journalists. In Central Asia, when one man’s truth is another man’s indiscretion, ugly things can happen in dark basements (or even on a sidewalk in a lovely autumn night).

Soviets, post- and hidden

A key question, then, is: what exactly did “natural partner” signify for Wahlström and his team? Perhaps it’s a tiny detail to harp upon, but I feel that two different films emerge depending on the answer to this question.

If the phrase signified the worst sins of imperialism and collaboration, then Wahlström and his team come across as sanctimonious missionaries. Some will certainly accuse them of more or less behaving as latter-day info-basmachy, trying to bully harried editors into joining their doomed jihad against the USSA.

If, however, “natural partners” signified an empire’s better angels, then the WikiLeakers come across as explorers on the frontiers of power’s self-deception. This seems to be what they’re going for by the film’s end, when American journalism is portrayed as no better than the former underbelly of the Soviet Union – if not more self-deceiving with respect to the limits placed upon itself and self-serving with respect to its navigation of those limits

Some audiences will see this portrayal as much too extreme, others not, but the point is very well made and the particulars can be debated. For the record – and I’m almost certainly committing professional suicide in some quarters by saying this aloud – my instinct is to strongly agree with the film’s basic argument (I advise readers to check out the work of my colleague Sarah Kendzior, an Uzbekistan specialist who’s heavily criticized the American prestige economy).

Great Gamed again

Central Asians, though, will probably disagree. In my experience, those of a liberal mindset tend to find it nonsensical, sometimes even insulting, to lower the American mediascape into the same murky plane as theirs. Ironically, those of a more conservative mindset may be more inclined to agree with Assange and Wahlström, feeling either the American media is just another tool of power, or opulent buffoonery posing as journalism.

Many Central Asians, regardless of ideological inclination, are also likely to feel that they were still Great Gamed. That’s because it turns out that they have been used in a cypherpunk’s war with the White House, just not in the way they originally thought.

Consider the film’s title. The suffix “-stan” in Central Asian languages simply means “country”, but it has become a byword in colloquial English not just for backwardness, but also for authoritarianism, if not totalitarianism, i.e., everything the liberal, democratic, transparent, rational West is not supposed to be. It’s probably quite unpleasant to see such a regular part of your language being used this way.

Between appreciation and cynicism

Then again, that this region is the frontier of power may be a hard blow to the ego, but it’s also the hard truth. One gets used to liminality in Central Asia, and either embraces it – for good or for ill, especially depending on your status in the nomenklatura back before 1992 – or prays to live to see the day when the region finally gets its proper place in the sun.

Central Asians are also very forgiving of foreigners’ missteps in their region (as I know too well from personal experience). Radio Azzatyk features prominently in Mediastan, and it just so happens that I’m a stringer for their headquarters back in Prague. I also have a connection or two with the professional networks through which the Wahlströhm and his team seem to have been moving. Consequently, I can say the following with confidence: back in 2010/2011, many of my colleagues feared but appreciated what Assange et al. were trying to do, and I expect that today in 2013, they are still receptive, if wary.

When all is said and done, regardless of the mistakes made and all the thousand little ways Central Asian journalists have their integrity chipped away, in their heart of hearts, my colleagues want a bazaar, not a mazar. They want to hear the laughter and clatter of the free and real exchange of information, not the tired echoes of what could have been. Anyone who wants to help Central Asians achieve this will tend to be appreciated and respected, in the quiet depths of the heart, even if simultaneously they are dismissed as fools – or decried as worse.