Right to know vs right to peace

Print edition : September 01, 2001

In the context of Agra, some reflections on the role of the media in the conduct of diplomacy.

SINCE a warped retrospect on the Agra Summit made it a media event laden with dire warnings, it provides good occasion to reflect on some basic issues about the role of the media in the conduct of diplomacy - as distinct from the wider, though related, question of the conduct of foreign policy in a democracy - the norms which should be observed by both the players and the voyeurs during the proceedings and, not least, about the leaders in governments' increasing touchiness about media projections; not seldom to the abdication of leadership itself.

At the Summit, in Agra. Neither the Kashmir problem nor the Sino-Indian border dispute can be resolved in the glare of publicity.-V. SUDERSHAN

It is one of the fundamentals not only of diplomacy but proper behaviour generally that you do not revile a head of state; least of all one with whom you parleyed a few days earlier and propose to parley yet again. If men as urbane as Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh launch a concerted campaign of sharply personal attacks on the competence of Pakistan's President, Pervez Musharraf, from July 28, at the Bharatiya Janata Party's National Executive meeting, to August 10 in Parliament, in marked contrast to their initial dignified reaction, it is because they gradually came to share media projections of Musharraf's "victory" in the media war on Indian soil. Vajpayee complained that the guest had "used" the media and "got away" with it. Ergo, he had to be "cut to size"!

One event which was singled out for censure as well as an explanation for the collapse of the Summit was the General's breakfast meeting with a group of Indian editors on July 16. Minister for Information and Broadcasting Sushma Swaraj told News, a Lahore daily, (July 20): "Things were derailed the moment the video recording of General Sahib's tough talk to a group of senior editors was instantly made available to all TV channels of the world which took no time in airing them.... an average citizen of India changed his or her evaluation of the visiting President immediately after watching his candid talk with our editors. The mass of Indian citizens decided there and then that you can't deal with this person who uses such harsh language as your guest."

The Minister's claim to perceive the "instant" reaction of "the mass of Indian citizens" is as fanciful as her version is untrue. She very well knew how the tape landed in the hands of Prannoy Roy of NDTV. It was reported in the Indian press. Having noticed the cameras, he asked the Pakistan Television crew for a copy, got it and telecast it instantly to everyone's surprise. Talks progressed considerably after the telecast and despite it. "Six square brackets" in the draft - denoting the differences - were reduced to just one, as Jaswant Singh admitted in the Rajya Sabha on August 10. Pakistan claims that the draft was agreed on twice by Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh. It is common ground that the CCS (read: Advani) would have none of it. Vajpayee has a point. Musharraf's public reference to the split in the Indian Cabinet "can create difficulties in future talks between the two countries" (July 26). The Prime Minister obviously decided to close ranks in Agra by caving in rather than assert himself. Musharraf ought not to have rubbed that in.

BUT touchiness about media projections should not drive leaders to recklessness. Jaswant Singh even trashed the Simla and Tashkent accords in the Lok Sabha on August 6 - even while demanding Pakistan's adherence to them - in order to score points with the Congress(I). Vajpayee claimed (on August 7) that Musharraf had offered to take back that part of Kashmir which Pakistan had "ceded" to China in the 1963 agreement. Pakistan instantly called it "a figment of his imagination". China sharply criticised it on August 12. Why did the Prime Minister have to drag China into all this at a time when India and China are engaged in talks on the border question? As was pointed out earlier, no such cession took place. It was China which yielded 750 sq km of administered territory to Pakistan. (Lessons for India; Frontline, June 24, 1997).

New light has been shed on Sushma Swaraj's statement on July 15, omitting Kashmir from the list of topics discussed. She had then explained that it was an inadvertent omission of the "obvious". We are now told by her (August 8) that it was both deliberate and authorised ("tough message in polite language"). This was done a day before the offending breakfast.

The sad truth is that both sides played to the media from the day the invitation was announced and continued to do so despite the Vajpayee-Musharraf understanding on the telephone on June 20 to avoid rhetoric ahead of the talks. On July 12, just two days before Musharraf's arrival, Jaswant Singh declared a hardline position, including the Sino-Pakistan border pact. On July 6, Pakistan issued a wantonly provocative statement on "acts of repression and oppression" in Kashmir. A split Cabinet in democratic India and a military regime in Pakistan vied with each other in playing to the media in their respective countries.

"A proper retreat at Goa" could not have made any difference, as Jaswant Singh has suggested. How would that have ensured greater "privacy" or being "away from the press"?

Surely, the hordes who descended on Agra would not have shunned Goa. Plane-loads of journalists went to distant Tashkent as well in 1966. But we live in the age of a hungry electronic media which cries for instant feeding. It is the duty of the leaders to agree on what should be fed to it and how much of it. Television panders to the prejudices of its consumers and creates a hype of its own. Both sides are agreed that Agra was not a total failure and that the dialogue continues. But the media hype contributed to the feeling of a let-down, a feeling which the players made no effort to combat. Vajpayee (July 28) was proud of the fact that he had sent Musharraf back empty-handed and without a proper farewell. Musharraf cited differences within the Indian team. Neither anticipated the perils and potentialities of media coverage in these times. The diplomatic process will get further debased if the problems posed by media coverage of meetings are not tackled sensibly now and norms laid down. We tend to believe the problems we face are unique to us and we have nothing to learn from experience elsewhere.

ON August 1, 1975, at Helsinki, French President Giscard d'Estaing proposed to U.S. President Gerald Ford a summit of developed nations "with just a few advisers and a minimum of publicity". They met informally at Rambouillet from November 15-17, 1975. But the press did not leave them alone. Unfed, it filed misleadingly sceptical reports "proving that media deadlines do not necessarily correspond to the rhythms of history".

However, the leaders were not a bit affected then. "All of this changed a few years later when the meetings became institutionalised and reverted to the more familiar priority of public relations" (Henry Kissinger; Years of Renewal; pages 694-696).

Strong leaders know how to deal with such situations and strike a balance between the need for correct information and the dictates of effective diplomacy. In modern times, Ambassadors and a fortiori visiting leaders of foreign governments freely address the media of the host country. The U.S. was sharply split during the Bangladesh crisis - the liberals from the Conservatives; the State Department from President Nixon's staff. India's Ambassador L.K. Jha used the media over the heads of the U.S. administration to appeal to the people - and won high praise from his adversary, Kissinger: "He was a superb analyst of the American scene; he understood international politics without sentimentality. At least toward me he never used the hectoring tone of moral superiority with which Indian diplomats sometimes exhausts if not the goodwill, at least the patience of their interlocutors. He was skilful in getting the Indian version of the issues to the press; I could always trace his footprints through the columns, and it was a painful experience when we found ourselves on opposite sides (I was supposed to be skilful in dealing with the press. On the India-Pakistan issue Jha clearly outclassed me)." This did not drive Kissinger to belittle him. On the contrary, he added: "Yet I had high regard and even affection for Jha" (Henry Kissinger; White House Years; page 867).

Hyper-sensitivity to media comment drives governments in Pakistan and India to crude devices to suborn it. Zamir Ansari, the dedicated chronicler of the press in Pakistan, has recorded how the intelligence services had some journalists on their payrolls.

The intrepid Karachi monthly Newsline, edited by Rehana Hakim, who hails from Belgaum, published (in August) a report from Agra of "a band of 'journalists' from obscure rags who are openly patronised by the Press Information Department. Of the 80 or so journalists that went to India, almost 50 belonged to this group... It is also no coincidence that in every distasteful episode, including the mobbing of Nirupama Rao, the spokesperson for the MEA, it was these journalists who were the culprits."

We have only rumours to go by on Indian practice on various forms of official support - monetary or other. What we do have are recorded instances of a dual strategy - co-option by favours and threats. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has traditionally used both. The Canadian High Commissioner, Escott Reid, a great admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru, refers to 'guidance' given by the MEA to "certain diplomatic correspondents of Indian newspapers" during the Hungarian crisis. He mentioned two senior journalists in particular (Escott Reid; Hungary and Suez 1956; page 49). The tribe exists, still. Its members are easily identifiable and are, by their peers, readily identified.

Sankarshan Thakur mentioned recently New Delhi's ire at the ones who ate breakfast with Musharraf as if they did not respond sharply. But he asked: "Aren't we ourselves to blame for some of this? Hasn't the media been only too happy to collaborate in its co-option by government so much so that the powers almost assume today's journalists to be their allies, if not adjuncts? ... they work on a system of rewards, dropping crumbs from the table and opening access to those that rush to pick them up: foreign junkets, wine and cheese parties, a harmless little story, an appointment that your peers won't get. All these on the condition that the story the government does not want told shall not be told... there was a time a journalist's worth was measured by how much awe he inspired in the Establishment...." (The Indian Express, July 27, 2001).

Seema Mustafa has graphically described the "carrot and stick" policy of the MEA towards the media (The Asian Age, March 18 and June 2, 2000). Coomi Kapoor had much the same situation to report "Have you ever wondered why those who cover the MEA almost always spout the same arguments on foreign policy as the government? It is not so much a meeting of minds, but the fact is that it has been made amply clear that dissenters will be kept out of a cosy club and access to crucial Ministry sources would be denied". (The Indian Express, May 31, 2000).

Tavleen Singh was told by an official to "stop writing things that Pakistan can use against us" (The Indian Express, March 2, 1997). Shekhar Gupta, now editor-in-chief, Indian Express recalled (November 10, 1997) how as a correspondent of India Today he had filed a story on the arming and training of Sri Lankan Tamil militants on Indian soil ("Ominous Presence in Tamil Nadu", March 31, 1984). He was summoned by a senior official of the MEA and "upbraided for 'spilling the beans' ".

All are journalists of distinction. Having quoted their reports, this writer thinks it but fair to record his experience. Bar a very few who declined to speak, two who criticised my articles - and were brusquely told off - and but one who tried to plant a story, all others whom I have met in the last over three decades were civil and truthful. Candour varied, of course. Not a few became close personal friends; men of proven competence and high integrity. I realise, of course, that the experience of a columnist, who visits New Delhi infrequently and does not quote "sources" or report, will be different from that of the correspondent on the beat.

The ones who try to "use" the press miss a lot. As Eric Clark points out in his delightful book Corps Diplomatique, "Journalists in all countries are regarded as good sources of information if they can be persuaded to talk. Today's diplomatic platitude is of a two-way exchange of information, but in practice diplomats, often want more than they give."

THAT leaves us with the problem we faced in Agra. The old truths are still valid. None has stated them better than did Harold Nicolson in his classic Diplomacy. On January 8, 1918, the prophet of "open diplomacy", President Woodrow Wilson, listed as the first of his Fourteen Points: "Open covenants of peace openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind". A year later he negotiated the Treaty of Versailles in utmost secrecy. Even the smaller allies were excluded. After the October Revolution in 1917, the new Bolshevik regime published the Czar's secret treaties. In 1922 its representatives concluded the Treaty of Repallo with Germany in the privacy of a hotel bedroom.

Clearly, all recognised that "open negotiation was totally unworkable" and that "Open covenants", need not be "openly arrived at" as well. Nicolson wrote: "Today the masses are expected to take an interest in foreign affairs, to know the details of current controversies, to come to their own conclusions, and to render these conclusions effective through press and parliament. At the same time, however, current issues have been rendered complex and interconnected; it is not possible to state issues, such as the Common Market, in short and simple terms. Thus, whereas the man in the street is expected to have an opinion on international problems, the very complexity of these problems has rendered it difficult to provide him with the information on which to base his judgment." Sound bites on the TV are of no help.

He added: "A further difficulty arises over the contrast between 'secret' and 'open' diplomacy. This stems from the misuse of the word 'diplomacy' to signify both foreign policy and negotiation. Foreign policy should never be secret, in the sense that the citizen should on no account be committed by his government to treaties or engagements of which he has not been given full previous knowledge. But negotiation must always be confidential. Very often, these days, negotiations are hampered or even frustrated by leakage to the press. Breaches of confidence are always news. No negotiator should speak to the press, on or off the record, while the parleys are in progress. Musharraf's breakfast was an utterly unwise act. It is, however, dishonest to cite it as an excuse for the Summit's collapse.

A lot has happened since Nicolson wrote in 1969. Diplomacy has acquired a more strident, hectoring style. George Kennan called it "megaphone diplomacy". The media has become more assertive. Diplomats hypocritically preach morality when their task is reconciliation of a conflict of interests. Some in the media will not hesitate to imperil such reconciliation while splashing a scoop. Where do we draw the line between "responsibility" and "self-censorship"? A former and brilliant Foreign Minister of Israel, Abba Eban realistically grapples with the problems of this age in his book Diplomacy for the Next Century (1999).

He writes: "The modern negotiator cannot escape the duality of his role. He must transact business simultaneously with his negotiating partner and his own public opinion. This requires a total modification of techniques. Whether this is a favourable development or not is irrelevant. It is certainly irreversible. There is no way of putting the clock black to an era in which negotiations were sheltered from domestic constituencies."

He adds: ''That a concession can be useful on balance both to oneself and to one's rival is a truth that responds to the dialectic of real life, but not to the passionate context of international conflict. The desire of negotiators to begin with secret exploration is not frivolous. Negotiation consists of stages and a result. If a nation hears of concessions offered by its own representatives without also knowing of the corresponding concessions offered by the other side, indignation will explode at the wrong time and the agreement will be lost." This warning is very relevant to our situation.

For, in South Asia compromise has become a dirty word and conciliation is regarded as an obscene performance. Privacy has become synonymous with conspiracy and settlement with treason. What is unacceptable is the journalist's pretension to moral superiority in the name of "the right to know", the details of negotiations in progress coupled with the right to reveal them as well. As a general rule, revelation has a better sound than secrecy. But if the journalist has the better of the argument about the means, the diplomat sometimes can reply that peace is higher social and human value than the satisfaction of curiosity. Thus, diplomacy, often, though not invariably, wins the argument against the journalist in terms of ultimate ends. The diplomat and the journalist are each acting within the guiding principle of his vocation, but the diplomat striving to avoid war is sometimes on a higher moral plane than the journalist striving to avoid secrecy. The right to know is not always morally superior to the right to peace... Secrecy is an essential element in progressing toward peaceful settlement of disputes."

The media, however, does more than demand access beyond its rights. It fixes the agenda of public preoccupation. Most in the print or electronic media are card-carrying hawks. But, neither Kashmir nor the Sino-Indian border dispute can be resolved in the glare of publicity or by leaders who, lacking either the capacity or political stature, or both, to lead, are slaves to media currents. Abba Eban's comment on such matters defies improvement: "It is unrealistic to expect political leaders to ignore public opinion. But a statesman who keeps his ear permanently glued to the ground will have neither elegance of posture nor flexibility of movement."

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor