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Critics Allege Russian Magazine Is Misrepresenting WikiLeaks Cables

Skeptical public?
Skeptical public?
Just like their peers around the world, Russian journalists have been writing extensively about the revelations contained in the secret U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.

In at least one publication, the resulting stories have been quite extraordinary. In fact, according to some skeptical observers, the scoops appear too good to be true.

According to the magazine "Russky reporter," for example, the famous walkout by Western diplomats during Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's speech to the United Nations in September 2009 was not spontaneous and had in fact been planned by Washington.

The magazine, citing WikiLeaks documents, claimed in a December 2 article that U.S. officials gave detailed instructions to EU representatives on when to leave the room during Ahmadinejad's speech. The claim, if substantiated, could be deeply embarrassing to the United States.

But unlike other media reporting on the WikiLeaks revelations, "Russky reporter" provided no documents to back up its allegations. An extensive search of the WikiLeaks database fails to yield relevant U.S. cables, causing some analysts to suggest the magazine might be exploiting WikiLeaks to propagate false information.

"The problem is that what should be backed by the cables does not actually appear in the published cables," says Yulia Latynina, one of several Russian journalists to have voiced doubts over the credibility of "Russky reporter," which claims to have a privileged relationship with WikiLeaks. "This allegation is left hanging in the air, to put it mildly."

WikiLeaks did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the existence of the cables and its relationship with "Russky reporter."


Russia is not the only country whose media have been accused of misrepresenting WikiLeaks material. The growing scrutiny of "Russky reporter" comes as several major Pakistani newspapers admitted publishing stories based on fake WikiLeaks cables in which U.S. diplomats ostensibly accused Indian authorities of harboring ties with Hindu fundamentalists and supporting Islamist militants in Pakistan.

Pakistan's "Express Tribune" on December 10 apologized on its front page for publishing the allegations "without due verification" after Britain's "The Guardian," one of the rare media outlets to have received access to all of the WikiLeaks' cables, exposed the sham.

The "Express Tribune" apology and the growing suspicions about "Russky reporter" illustrate that while the WikiLeaks revelations have exposed the world to a treasure trove of information about previously secret diplomatic maneuvers, they have also opened the door to misinterpretation, misrepresentation, and even outright deception.

Much of the criticism against "Russky reporter" focuses on an article analyzing secret communications penned by U.S. diplomats in Tbilisi during the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008.

"When I first read the utter nonsense about events in Georgia, I immediately went and read the real cables, and I saw that this was a complete deception and falsification," says Leonid Velikhov, the editor of Russia's "Sovershenno sekretno" newspaper. "Everything had been distorted."

In the article, Editor in Chief Vitaly Leibin writes that the leaked U.S. documents show that most governments believed that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili started the war, and that "no one in the world had any illusions" otherwise.

In reality, the cables released by WikiLeaks show the opposite. A cable sent from the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi says that "all the evidence available to the country team supports Saakashvili's statement that this fight was not Georgia's original intention."

According to "The New York Times," the cables actually reveal that U.S. diplomats relied heavily on the Georgian government's information and largely failed to challenge its account of the war in their cables to Washington.

"Russky reporter's" translation of U.S. cables posted on its website is at times also misleading.

For example, the magazine quoted a remark in the cables by the U.S. ambassador in Riga that Latvian authorities blame Russia for starting the war but felt "Tbilisi has been looking for a provocation to act." But when the comment was translated into Russian, it misleadingly read: "Tbilisi provoked in order to act."

"Russky reporter," a glossy medium-circulation magazine owned by the Kremlin-friendly Ekspert publishing group, has similarly been accused of withholding cables critical of Russian leaders.

The fierce anti-U.S. rhetoric of its WikiLeaks coverage has likewise raised eyebrows; one editorial, for instance, accuses Washington of mounting a "general persecution" against Russia.

Leibin denies that "Russky reporter" intentionally misled readers, although he does concede that some "mistakes" and "translation inaccuracies" occurred.

He says the magazine does not systematically link to the original cables simply because some of these documents have not yet been made public by WikiLeaks.

"Well, yes, we will have to publish all the cables confirming our conclusions in order to prevent further conflicts," Leibin says. "We will do this as soon as we get authorization from WikiLeaks."

WikiLeaks And Friends

"Russky reporter" claims to be one of the few media outlets that were given early access to WikiLeaks' quarter-million U.S. cables.

Only four media organizations, however, are known to be collaborating directly with WikiLeaks: "The Guardian" in Britain, "Le Monde" in France, "El Pais" in Spain, and "Der Spiegel" in Germany.

"The Guardian" has shared the material with "The New York Times" and the five newspapers have been advising WikiLeaks on which documents to release, what redactions to make, and when to publish.

Unlike "Russky reporter," these newspapers have carried stories relating exclusively to cables that have been simultaneously released by WikiLeaks and coordinated with the publication in question.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Leibin says that his magazine's collaboration with WikiLeaks is slightly different.

"To be accurate, we're not cooperating in the same way as 'The Guardian' or 'The New York Times.' Their staff journalists worked together with WikiLeaks activists going through this vast database to find things they were interested in publishing," Leibin says. "In our case, a freelance journalist worked for us: Israel Shamir, who has been an activist with WikiLeaks. It simply turned out that we knew an activist from WikiLeaks."

Shamir could not be reached for comment.

In an apparent attempt to dispel any doubt about its ties with the secret-leaking website, the magazine has posted a photo of Shamir standing next to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on its website.

A freelance journalist, Shamir is himself a controversial figure known for his stinging anti-Zionist rhetoric and his conspiracy theories about the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

More recently, Shamir has turned his ire toward the women currently accusing the WikiLeaks founder of sexual assault, branding them "pro-CIA," "castrating feminists" and hailing Assange as "our favorite hero of the Matrix, our Captain Neo."

The accusations leveled against "Russky reporter" and the fake U.S. cables cited in the Pakistani media show that WikiLeaks, despite all its efforts at transparency, remains vulnerable to falsification by unscrupulous journalists.

Media experts say the deliberate opacity of WikiLeaks, which is the subject of a U.S. criminal investigation, and the sheer number of documents it exposes mean the public will need to become more discerning about its reported disclosures.

"It's the same with blogging," says Charlie Beckett, director of Polis, a journalism think tank at the London School of Economics. "When blogging started, there were loads and loads of blogs that were highly dubious and that still are, probably. It's just that people learned to sift out the ones that are lying all the time and the ones that aren't. I guess something similar is happening with WikiLeaks."

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

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