You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Mediastan: A Travelogue of "Comparative Censorship"

BY Jessica McKenzie | Tuesday, October 15 2013

Opening credits of Mediastan

Julian Assange's contempt for The Fifth Estate is no secret. In a statement about the Dreamwork's film about WikiLeaks, Assange called it “a geriatric snoozefest that only the US government could love.” As an alternative to that “Hollywood propaganda,” Assange suggests viewers interested in WikiLeaks watch the documentary Mediastan, which is billed as “a WikiLeaks road movie.”

Mediastan was released last Friday, October 11, to coincide with the U.K. opening of The Fifth Estate. Directed by journalist Johannes Wahlström and produced by Assange, the film follows a group of journalists in 2011 as they travel across central Asia in "Operation Cablerun," offering thousands of secret U.S. government cables to different media outlets. Time after time, editors express initial interest, but then back out after talking to a higher up. One of the journalists asks the editor-in-chief of Asia Plus in Tajikistan why he hesitates in accepting the cables when he's the "top man" at his paper. He replies, “No, the top man sits in Washington D.C. The Washington overlord of Asia Plus.”

One thing that prompts concern is that, in order to get access to the cables, the editors must sign a memorandum of understanding. The journalists in the film insist that it is not so terrible: “a short text” that is not legally binding; a “gentleman's agreement” that states they will not give the material to anyone else, that they will not sell it, and that they will redact the names of the “small people” who could be injured by the cables. This is too much for many of the editors Wahlström and his team interview.

The journey eventually lands them in front of a squirming Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, who asks if they can discuss things before they start filming. Throughout the interview, Rusbridger hesitates to speak in certainties, preferring to use hypothetical language and “guesses.” When asked why a cable about the Bulgarian mafia, originally around 5,700 words, was published with only 2,000 words, Rusbridger says, “If your point is that we could have been more explicit in explaining both why we were doing things and the nature of the material we were cutting out that's probably a fair point.” But he does not elaborate or say why they redacted more than 3,500 words, beyond his citation of “legal considerations.”

In The New York Times building, Bill Keller, the executive editor at the time, is considerably more at ease in a comfortable conference room lined with portraits of distinguished personages. In a casual exchange with publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Keller jokingly says, “We're talking about our favorite subject: WikiLeaks.”

The film was intended to be an exploration of the geopolitical landscape of Central Asia, not an exposé about influence in media as Assange explains:

Central Asia is the most fascinating geopolitical region in the world. It is the cream in the geopolitical layer cake. On the top, Russia, on the bottom, China; in the middle, a fight for US influence. . . [But] what started out as a geopolitical road movie transformed into a tale of comparative censorship.

But these journalists end up at the Guardian and the New York Times by "Following a trail of censorship and media collusion with power," according to the press release.

On Twitter, one user @muncadunc made this observation on the face-off with The Fifth Estate:

Critics are also underwhelmed by The Fifth Estate. The Economist called it “frustrating.” Although it praises Benedict Cumberbatch's performance as Assange, the review says “the whizz-bang pacing and the sprawling cast serve only to over-complicate an already complicated narrative.”

Even more damning: “With its cough-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Bradley Manning, and its fudging of WikiLeaks’ cessation in 2011, “The Fifth Estate” lacks the transparency that Mr Assange is always lecturing people about.”

The Fifth Estate director, Bill Condon, has not sat idly by while Assange and others blast his film. In an interview with The Verge, he says Assange is “like the teenager who has to prove he was right about everything.”

On sparring with Assange, Condon says:

People have been saying, "No, no, this is fine. Hang back and don’t engage," but it is frustrating. Because he just flat-out makes things up. . . I think what’s interesting is that it’s just a different target all the time, but it’s the same message: that nobody’s telling the truth about me.

The Verge asks two questions that get at Condon's beliefs regarding journalism ethics, and how they differ from Assange's:

I get the sense from the movie that you’re personally in support of this way of exposing truth, and the importance of it. Is that accurate?

Yeah—but I would never say I agree with total transparency for powerful institutions, because governments cannot function with total transparency. I think that’s a naive idea, you know? But do we need to know more than we know? I would argue yes. So it’s somewhere in the middle there.

That nuance is something that can get lost in the discussion. It’s easy to think of it a binary decision, but I’d argue that it’s gray.

It is! That’s why journalists have always been—that’s what the Fourth Estate [the press] is meant to do. And, you know, his [Assange’s] challenge will be, "Well, they’ve kind of abrogated that to a degree by not pushing for more transparency," hence we need people like him. That may be true.

Regardless of your opinion of Julian Assange, who Condon rightly observes too often steals focus from the message of WikiLeaks, Mediastan is a worthwhile view for anyone interested in media, power and governance. The character of Assange takes a backseat to the tenacious young journalists on a quest to release once-secret diplomatic cables in the name of truth. It is a film that reveals the limits and boundaries every media outlet has, whether or not they admit it.

Mediastan can be screened here, and The Fifth Estate opens in the United States this Friday, October 18.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

For a round-up of our weekly stories, subscribe to the WeGov mailing list