BEING A PAPER PRESENTED BY OGHOGHO OBAYUWANA, FOREIGN AFFAIRS EDITOR OF THE GUARDIAN AT THE SEMINAR FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENTS, MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS, ABUJA.
23RD JULY 2013
I want to thank the Public Communications Department for organising this seminar for Foreign Affairs Correspondents. This has never happened before. I am honoured to be invited to share a few insights of mine with this distinguished audience. I believe this session is meant to remind ourselves as journalists, of what we should be doing when we go about reporting diplomacy. The way I have approached the topic, I am simply going to draw from my own experience of 18 years of reporting diplomatic activities. So this is really no textbook prescription, just something to share by way of hints, from what one has been able to experience as a practitioner. Now the phrase – Diplomatic Reporting is not a regular journalistic expression. In fact, it is more of a diplomatic term. But I guess the term was chosen for the purpose of this seminar, to refer to the best possible way journalists ought to be covering diplomatic activities. I know that journalists, diplomats and academics do some form of reporting or the other. So I start by referring us to a comment made by the former Permanent Representative of Malta to the United Nations, Ambassador Victor Camilleri, in a Paper delivered at the E-diplomacy panel in the Internet Era after WikiLeaks, sometime around February, 2011; and I quote:
“...the reports that diplomats produce have a lot in common with reports produced by journalists and by academics. The challenge for the diplomat is to preserve a space where the diplomatic report can be seen as adding special depth and foresight to the journalistic narrative, while bringing relevance and immediacy to the academic analysis...”. Well, that was a diplomat talking.
For us, the challenge it would seem to me, is to go beyond what has been referred to by Camilleri as mere narrative. Journalists are not narrators or some pedestrian story tellers. Apart from routine reporting, we want to accurately report all of those things that diplomats are trying to hide. And trust diplomats, by training they will always try to hide something. This for me is the real challenge. How do you report effectively in a milieu where sometimes people say the very opposite of what they mean? Now, these are some of the hints that came to my mind.
KNOW YOUR TERRAIN
Diplomacy as a field to be covered by journalists, is a specialised beat. To that extent, the ability to understand the institutions and persons that dominate the beat is essential. There is a popular term: “Walk the beat”. I have often said that one must “walk the beat” to be able to make good news judgement most of the time. It means to be on top of your beat. Read up on the beat. And that should be no big deal. Then If possible, go the extra mile, subscribe to specialised publications. Make sure you obtain or demand for an In-House publication of institutions on your terrain (institution here means ministry and parastatals, embassies and High Commissions or think tanks). Grasp the simple things. For instance: Why is it that spouses of serving ambassadors are not allowed to work or take paid employment while on posting abroad? Why is it that an envoy to a country may not make an official statement or speak to you until he presents his letters of credence to the President? Why do countries take care to ensure that Agrément are secured first before designating an ambassador to a particular posting? What are the politics behind Agrément? Why for instance has it been postulated that Agrément would not be given by a country such as the US if someone like former minister of foreign affairs Chief Tom Ikimi is to be made the Nigerian ambassador to the US. I am just giving examples... I have been with ambassadors who said to me that some journalists were requesting for an interview with him at a time when he was yet to present his letter of credence...Message for editors... (You waste your time, you send the signals that Nigerian journalists just shoot blind. when you report that these spouses are parasites and a drain to the national purse, you betray so much ignorance when you should be educating the public)
Learning how a particular system works takes time but it pays off from time to time in the quality of stories that you break and report. We can also try to answer for ourselves a few questions on how the system operates such as: Who and where are the news spinners? Who are the leg workers for the news makers? Where are mistakes or wrongs recorded or domiciled? Who knows the story behind the story and how can I get it.
Do not stop only at the offices of the Ministers, the Permanent Secretary and of course that of the Spokesperson. This is not good enough. Do not limit yourself to collecting hand outs! Know the various Divisions and Departments, those who are manning them and what their functions are in order to be able to determine where to obtain background information or to enrich a breaking story. Take the Consular Department for example. We all know what they do there but you know the consular officers will never speak to you on what is happening to controversial visa applications, impersonation or citizens status. So befriend an officer there and get first hand glimpses... Overriding urgent public interest and deadlines will not give you the luxury of time to wait for the Director of PCD who is yet to clear from his Minister meanwhile, the public who keep you in business, want to be informed as events are unfolding.
Also, learn from key officers in the institutions on the terrain. For instance, we can key into the internal publicity mechanism of the ministry. Read notice boards. Even though that device is fast becoming an antique with the increasing use of computers, they still come handy in knowing what is going on. You can then do follow ups...
I have said that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a repository of very brilliant people. This is true. There are Foreign Service Officers here looking for a journalist they can respect. Be one. This pays off in the end. Years back, I still remember people like Ambassador Ayo Adeniran who took me through the organogram of the Ministry. There have been such other helpful officers such as Ambassador Sulaiman Dahiru, Ambassador Abdullahi Omaki and Ambassador Ayo Olukanni, just to mention a few. They were not the most brilliant Foreign Service Officers that I ever came in contact with but they were willing to share their knowledge. Find officers who have your time and upgrade yourself. But do not limit yourself to the Ministry. There is a pool of experts consisting either serving or retired diplomats as well as renowned scholars who can help deepen any perspective. But you know you have to first earn their respect to be able to get instantaneous reactions from them or to have them set agenda.
So, do not start by making a go at “other things”. You know what I mean. These would come once you have mastered your terrain. It is a known fact that if you are well acquainted with the nuances of the communication of the people you cover as well as the procedures of their institutions and then are at home with the modus of the terrain, you can ask better questions and improve your chances of finding out what you want to know, so that you are then not shooting blind at those critical moments. As it is often said, when you shoot blind, you are almost always going to fire blank.
Knowing your terrain is one good way of building your source list. But then, you have to deal with sources that you will be returning to every day even if you have written a story they do not like. You will have to navigate through this mine yourself. Here, only your integrity would be of help.
MIND YOUR LANGUAGE
We have said that diplomacy is a specialized beat. So, it is necessary to master the specialized vocabulary of your terrain. If it is possible, develop a glossary of essential and appropriate terminologies to avoid embarrassing gaffes while reporting. How is it that some envoys are called Ambassadors while others are referred to as High Commissioners, who is a Chargé d'Affaire? What is concurrent accreditation? I believe that some of these things would be dealt with by the expert in the other paper to be presented.
Now, mind your language. We have heard it said that diplomacy is when you are able to tell someone nicely to go to hell such that he or she actually looks forward to the trip. That says a bit of the sensitiveness of the beat and we ought to respect that. Avoid very strong and rebarbative words, unless there no finer adjectives which aptly describe a course of action or phenomenon.
If, for instance, a particular envoy is being summoned by the Foreign Affairs Minister who then expresses some displeasure with an issue, next day you read something in the Papers like: “FG warns...” “Nigeria dares”. Take it easy. Summoning is not anything extraordinary; it's a normal diplomatic procedure. I know you don't cast the headlines but headlines are Intro derivatives.
The other day, the Minister of Foreign Affairs had a meeting with envoys accredited to Nigeria over perceived flouting of communication channel as well as comments on the internal affairs of Nigeria. And we were seeing things like. “FG reads riot act”... Such language is undiplomatic. You do not read riot acts to an accredited envoy who has not been declared persona non grata and who is the representative of his Head of State in your country.
So except when diplomatic relations have broken down, so badly that principal actors like the President or Foreign Ministers have abandoned the diplomatic garb, that you can quote them. I mean journalists relished quoted late US president Ronald Reagan's jibes at the late Libyan leader Muammar Ghadaffi who he referred to as a gadfly and who himself responded by calling Reagan a mad dog. So much here goes without saying.
One of the things I learnt during an internship I had at the very famous Tampa School of Journalism in Florida, USA, is that one should use one's calling to fight causes. Worthy causes that are of public good. In fact, one of the trainees used to say “If you are not fighting any cause, you are probably not doing your job well” And I agree with him. Look around you. You will find causes to fight with your pen. There were days when one was forced to take a position on the vexed issue of appointment of politicians as ambassadors. There was a time the ratio was 65 to 35 percent in favour of political appointees who were breaking our missions abroad without giving a hoot, while people who were trained for diplomacy and had put in everything into the service were being systematically denied the chance of rising to the pinnacle of their career. It is much better now. I was involved in this fight. Today, the Nigerian syndrome, the issue of quota and ethnic balancing in the appointment of ambassador is still there. Be proactive. Do not wait for those hand outs or wait to be commissioned before you write something profound. Like I said, there are many causes to fight. Be it the apparently mundane issues such as poor electricity supply to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which got very bad not too long ago, or the non release of recommendations made by foreign relations experts, or the inadequate funding of Nigeria's foreign missions which also got so bad that at some point, we stood in danger of exposing our foreign service officers to the risk of being paid by other people who could be inimical to Nigeria's interest, etc, there would always be something you could expose for the public good in addition to your routine reportage.
To give another example; the Situation Room in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not always exist as we have it today. Now, I was one of those who consistently wrote about its desirability. Things were so bad then that in admitting the need for action, I still remember what a former Minister, Ambassador Ignatius Olisemeka said in this regard (This was around 1999). He said: “What (information) takes two days to get to other foreign ministries in another country takes us two weeks to get here” Fortunately, we have exited that era. But there are still challenges of getting information in good time. With the interconnectivity at headquarters and internet access, I am told all of Nigeria's missions abroad are now linked with the ministry. Take advantage of this. The situation room would be of immense help to any reporter today who is on top of his beat. Enlist any officer or assistant in that office into your Source List but do not be seen milling around there! Use the information from the situation room to fight causes.
By the way, I said earlier that one of the pertinent questions that the diplomatic reporter must ask himself is: Where are mistakes or wrongs recorded? Have we checked the Inspectorate Department lately for what has gone amiss out there?
BE ON THE RIGHT
The Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA), I believe has come to make things easy for us in terms of access to relevant information. But still you have to help yourself. Arm yourself with facts and documents. Be confident and organised. Avoid wild speculations. This is how you can become “untouchable” Yes certain stories might annoy people; in fact if your story is always patronising and pleasing to those you cover, then there is a problem somewhere.
Love the calling. Let me talk about myself. I have spent 18 of my twenty years sojourn in journalism, on foreign affairs and development. I love it. I simply love the diplomatic atmospherics. I used to say to people that but for the fact that I have remained on the diplomatic beat, there is no way I could have stayed on-field all these years. I could not have been covering some ministry or bodies this long. I would have opted out and might not have had the patience to wait to become an editor! Make no mistake: To truly master a beat, you have to stay long enough. ....
Now, being on the right, that's a key weapon with which you can confront persons who may want to push you around and treat you like unwelcome interlopers. You find so many of such here either as secretaries to news makers or aides or even senior officials who feel threatened by your presence, the checks you run or by your reports. Being untouchable means to be on the right. It means to be armed. And this is what gives you the confidence you need. Arm yourself with facts and figures, and with due deference to the culture of the terrain you are able to look people in the eye and say: (and I have done this several times) “...This is a public building... I've got my job to do”. “No, no, no., I do not report to you” The fact that you are privileged to work here does not give you any more right than I have ...” “If I had joined the civil service perhaps I would be an assistant director...”Things like that... Refuse to be intimidated.
YOU CAN ALSO GIVE
There is this mistake often made by practitioners who are used to receiving handouts in form of press releases and invites and the “other things”. They forget to also give. Enduring service is about giving and taking. Help the people you cover from time to time so that the day you do an adverse report, they will not take it personal and would likely advise themselves that this fellow probably does not mean any harm but is just doing his job. Then of course, it is not everything untoward you see or hear that you report. I give an example. There was once a minister that was quite brash. One day he made a pronouncement obviously without having first giving it a good thought. Knowing the implication of what he had said by the time it is interpreted, I went out of my way to reach out to him, very quickly and a reversal was subsequently made. We can do similar things once in a while and you would have been giving. Without meaning to be impudent you can say “Honourable minister or spokesperson, have you thought about the implications of the content of this release?” I have witnessed a Nigerian envoy coming to the point of fisticuffs with a ministerial aide in full public glare and at a public building in one of our Asian outposts. It would be a “good story” if reported but how well served would be the interest of our country if we splash such entertaining and sensational news copies?
It is responsibility and maturity to carefully weigh the slant of certain reports as we write. We have to also remember that it is Nigeria's enterprise that is at stake at such moments. So part of the giving that I have spoken about today is to have sufficient clarity on issues to know when to just observe and not to report.
We continue here from where we left off on knowing your terrain. I have seen the different phases of the ministry from when we were under the military, when tools like computers were a bit scarce... I will say that in a sense, it is a unique ministry in that it is a bit different from the usual ministries and you cannot easily see the tangibles. Behaviour here is also different. Please, do not overlook this fact as you go about your work. Now, Foreign Service Officers are about the brightest civil servants around. In a sense, they are global citizens of sorts and have been exposed to some of the best training and work culture around the world. The way they dress, the way they speak and their general comportment. You can learn a lot from them. I know that we can see easily that the diplomat appears to carry himself with some air. You must learn to discountenance all those insinuations that border on arrogance if you wish to go far. Then, be careful not to be shabby. Always be well dressed. All my years even when I was in Lagos as a cub reporter, I strove to make the statement that a journalist can be very well dressed. Well, this is actually something that I was born with but we can all upgrade in this regard and boost our confidence on the floor of the beat.
One more thing, to be respected here as a correspondent, it is necessary, among others to have clarity and insight on the direction of the country's foreign policy as driven by ministry's machinery and then use same to track pronouncements of ministers or their agents and see whether they are deviating from their own goals. Today we have are having an atavism of economic diplomacy. It was former minister Okonjo Iweala who actually gave push to the Idea of economic determinism during her short spell here. Time there was when we were writing about Concentricism, diplomacy of happenstance, and Roadside diplomacy. And then another minister promised a handbook of Nigerian brand of diplomacy, then came Citizens Diplomacy or (diplomacy of consequences). But I think we are at an era where neighbourhood diplomacy and economic diplomacy are merged into one. Why I am running through this? it is essential to key into the particular policy direction cliché, of any period, understand it and use same to put those who are propounding and implementing the policy on their toes and generate stories in the process.
As diplomatic correspondents, we also report news from outside Nigeria. Buy the challenge is that we are not at those scenes and so depend on news wire sources and global media agencies. The problem that has erupted here is that we tend to see the world from their own prism. And so just copy and paste and not doing enough to rewrite or even do some adaptation. And strange, when the opportunity presents itself we still quote these foreign media on our domestic issues when we could actually dig deeper than them. An example is the Niger Delta crisis. I understand this has to do with capitalisation in the media but we can do better. Let's stop wholesale copying. If we are talking about the controversy in same sex marriage for instance, we want to read in the VOA website or listen to their news and have them quote us, I mean quote Nigerian news organs and have us reintroduce such words such as “abomination” into their lexicon, for example.
Now, who says they cannot also quote you. Let me give you an example. In August 2001, I did a story on the land uprising in Zimbabwe as well as an interview with the vilified President Robert Mugabe. By then many people who knew the deeper issues of land grab in Zimbabwe had become sick of the use of such terms as “white owned farms” which African (including the Nigerian) media were circulating with unguarded excitement. You need to look beyond the usual Western campaign of calumny to realise that apart from staying too long in power, the crime of Mugabe is beyond what we see in the news cables ... anyway, the BBC quoted the Nigerian Guardian because at the time, Mugabe had asked all foreign media to leave his country and they were starved of news... So to slowly turn around the clock of dependency on foreign news organisations for what we can get for ourselves, we can start by look at areas where we are better positioned in terms of access. For instance why should it be western media which informs us about the substandard Chinese goods that are being imported into Nigeria? We should investigate that issue ourselves and let outside foreign media quote us based on our findings. Even though we live in a globalised world, it is essentially supposed to be a Nigerian issue which we should be feeding the rest of the world with and not allow our country and citizens to be pawns in the international politics that also makes use of these global media outfits.
Lastly, there have also been issues raised on the way we go about conference reporting. There are procedures for reporting plenary, closed doors, committee reports, presentations as well as sideline meetings at major conferences, multilateral fora and summits around the world which the diplomatic correspondent must come to terms with in deciding what is what. I am sure this would be taken care of by the other paper to be presented.
It is a thankless job. But remember that every day, as you do your reports, you are writing your testimonial. The testimonial you need for tomorrow.
We can hardly exhaust all the shades of this topic but I think these hints are sufficient for today and can act as a spur in the desire for best practices. I thank you for your attention.
Oghogho Arthur OBAYUWANA
Foreign Affairs Editor, The Guardian
Email: [email protected], [email protected]
my blog: http://ogogs.wordpress.com