Sunday, April 3, 2011

On Foreign Ministry and the media

The Independent, Saturday, 2nd April, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

A recent exchange in the media between the Foreign Ministry and the media reminded me on my days in the Ministry in the period 1986-1990. I was then a Director in the office of the Foreign Secretary. Those days, the diplomatic correspondents that covered the affairs of the Foreign Ministry were a small but compact group. They had close relations with the Foreign Ministry where the Foreign Secretary used to brief them regularly at weekly briefings sessions.

The Foreign Secretaries did not like those weekly briefing sessions but had to oblige nevertheless for so was the wish of the President who wanted such sessions to be propaganda sessions for his regime. In the period I worked in the Foreign Secretary’s office, I had served five Foreign Secretaries. One of them was brilliant but temperamental. There was a young diplomatic correspondent who sadly passed away at an early age in the 1990s who used to ask this Foreign Secretary questions that irritated him. There was a heated exchange in one of his briefings with this correspondent. The correspondent did not take it lightly and threatened to hold a press conference over it at the Press Club. The matter was eventually resolved in the office of the Foreign Secretary with an apology from the latter.

The recent unpleasant exchange between the Foreign Ministry and the media as reported in a leading English daily involved its correspondent who was singled out by the Foreign Secretary during his briefing to the media for some harsh comments. The paper described the Foreign Secretary’s comments as a “tirade” against it in an editorial. It also quoted the Foreign Secretary accusing the paper of “bad journalism” “sad journalism” etc. Apparently the confrontation occurred over the paper’s criticism of the Government’s repatriation efforts in Libya in its reports from its correspondent that it sent to the Libyan border. The Ministry did not like some of these reports and sent a rejoinder that the paper thrashed that led to the Foreign Secretary’s anger.

The exchanges left a bad impression in many who read the exchanges in the newspaper. The Ministry and the media should have resolved the differences through discussions. It was not clear from the editorial in the paper in question whether such an effort was made. There could be a version of the Foreign Ministry on the unfortunate incident that could show the exchange in a somewhat different light. Unfortunately for the Foreign Secretary, he cannot write an editorial to put across to the public the Ministry’s side of the incident. The Foreign Secretary may have been harsh in his choice of words and may have hurt the feelings of the correspondent and perhaps some pride of the paper. The editorial was nevertheless equally harsh, perhaps more for its sarcastic tenure, and has hurt the credibility of the Ministry and the Government. It was an editorial that should not have written.

There are a few issues that this unfortunate exchange between the Foreign Ministry and the newspaper has brought to focus. It seems that the Foreign Ministry has not carried on with the tradition of a weekly press briefing. Instead it now holds such briefing on need basis. Those days, the Director-General (External Publicity) used to maintain very cordial relations with the diplomatic correspondents and exchange of information between the Ministry and the media was very smooth. In fact, when the present editor of The Independent was a Director-General (External Publicity), he was the designated Spokesman of the Foreign Ministry following the Indian system where a Joint Secretary in charge of External Publicity is the Spokesman of the External Affairs Ministry of India.

The Foreign Secretary in the South Asian countries is more than a highly placed official in the Ministry; he or she is an institution. It is absurd even to think that the Indian Foreign Secretary or her Pakistani counterpart could ever face such a predicament with the media in their respective country. In fact, the media in these countries take their cue from the Spokesman in the Foreign Ministry who is one or two ranks below the Foreign Secretary, on major foreign policy issues of the Government. It is time that in Bangladesh, an official below the Foreign Secretary, of either the rank of Additional Secretary or Director-General (External Publicity) is named the Spokesman and a strong unit is built with him in charge that would interact with the media intimately for furthering the country’s foreign policy objectives.

There is another problem of having the Foreign Secretary speak to the media in Bangladesh. The Government expects him, as President Ershad wanted of his Foreign Secretaries, to make a political statement whenever he briefs the media. An official of a junior rank can easily avoid making the political statement. In this instance, the Foreign Ministry was interested in telling the people through the media that the Government is doing a wonderful job with the Libyan repatriation. It wanted to take political mileage out of its efforts. Unfortunately for the Foreign Ministry, the newspaper with which the Foreign Secretary had the exchange has a correspondent in the Libyan border talking to the Bangladeshis fleeing from Libya and watching firsthand the repatriation process. Obviously, he has come across too many flaws to make the Foreign Ministry’s claim credible. For instance, the Foreign Ministry has to take a lot of blame for sending an Ambassador to an important remittance destination where 60,000 Bangladesh were working from another Ministry. It was also not fully staffed. Thus at the first signs of danger, they surrendered their diplomatic responsibilities to take care of their personal safety.

The Bangladeshis that this paper’s correspondent interviewed have told him too many horror stories for him to send reports to pat the Foreign Ministry or the Government in the back. In fact, the experiences the Bangladeshis are horrendous. It speaks of a deep rooted nexus of corruption involving government officials and manpower agents in Bangladesh who have fleeced many of these expatriates of huge sums as fees for their jobs only to find on arrival that the jobs they were promised were not there!

The misfortune of our expatriates in Libya is not yet over. The Bangladeshis must first be brought home and rehabilitated before the Government claims any credit. The Government must bear in mind that they went to Libya with its encouragement. In fact before the Libyan situation exploded, the Government took a lot of credit for opening the Libyan market. It is a pity that neither the Expatriate Ministry nor the Foreign Ministry surveyed the market for if they did they would have cautioned the expatriates that they were walking into the line of fire by going to Libya. That the Libyan market was fragile was known to other manpower exporting countries that were cautious in sending their expatriates there. Where we sent 60,000, other South Asian countries did not even send a third or a fourth or a fifth of the number we did. Surely they must have known of the dangers brewing there.

Instead of fighting the media, the Foreign Ministry must first accept criticism as an integral part of the democratic process. It must also create a Task Force together with the Expatriate Ministry as a permanent inter-ministerial body with adequate manpower to develop a plan of action for helping our expatriates if they face the Libyan situation in the countries where they are working now. Together, they should also look into the deep rooted problems in the manpower business because we are the only country in our region that sends expatriates to work abroad without any transparency in the process; expatriates who remit nearly US 11 billion a year for our future and about whom we talk a lot and do very little. For a starter, they should find out why a Bangladesh expatriate has to pay two to three times more as fees to the manpower agents than an expatriate from any of our neighbouring country for the same type of work and also paid comparatively substantially less at their place of work. .

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a former Secretary to the Government.

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