Diplomatic Misconceptions [Archives:2001/12/Viewpoint]

March 19 2001

During my work as the Editor-in-Chief of Yemen Times, I have had varied experiences with hundreds of diplomats. I continue to stay in touch with many foreign dignitaries and ambassadors and I have concluded from my relationship with many of them that there are some misconceptions within the diplomatic community. These misconceptions mainly relate to the relationship between the press and diplomats. That is why I wish to discuss the implications of this viewpoint.
In the global village of today, freedom of press, freedom to know, and freedom of expression are of vital importance for any democracy. Yet, I cannot understand the reason why some diplomats hide the facts from journalists and consider them as some sort of enemy or opponent. The question gets more legitimacy when an embassy refuses to provide information already given by the country’s foreign ministry directly. Too much caution can sometimes become damaging rather than beneficial.
I have had very interesting experiences with diplomats who have become confused, unaware of what should be told to the press and what should not. For a newspaper or a news agency, it is important to contact an embassy to get information. However, some embassies fail to comment or respond, resulting in a one sided story. These embassies tend to do this perhaps to create obstacles for the newspaper, hoping that the story will not be published. However, simply because it is not supported with information from an embassy, a newspaper cannot withdraw a story from publication. But due to the nature of news reports, hidden details of stories can result in an incomplete picture, which once published, may lead to criticism and complaints from the embassies concerned.
On the other hand, many embassies deal with the press in an extremely open manner. They immediately answer the questions of the press openly and frankly, giving a clear image for the reader and a coherent, strong, clear, and complete story. These embassies are satisfied with the story’s structure and contents because it has included views from all sides. Hence, it is obvious that the embassy’s interaction is most of the time in favor of the embassy, which leads to better coordination between the press and diplomats. Yemen Times has enjoyed this relationship with most embassies except a few, and it hopes that through this viewpoint they will be convinced that the press should not be dealt with as an enemy or rival. Press people want the truth only, they don’t want anything in return for that.
It would be appropriate here to quote one of my diplomat friends of a western country, who once said in an informal gathering, “We sometimes fall into a dilemma of what we should say and what we should not. This dilemma affects our relationship with the press. It is unfortunate that despite being the embassy of a great western country, we failed to build a relationship with the press built on trust and reliability.”
All I want to say here is that some embassies think that by hiding certain facts in certain stories they are serving their country’s ‘national interest’. I want to tell these diplomats that telling the truth has never harmed any embassy before. It is avoiding telling the truth that harmed those embassies. I urge those few embassies to revise their strategies and the way they manage their relationship with the 4th authority in the country, the press.