The Sri Lanka Foreign Ministry’s untenable communications policy

LKI

I would like to start with a caveat. I am not a student of the relationship between foreign policy and media. I am a journalist. So my talk is based on personal experience and my own analysis of situations my colleagues and I have faced during the last two decades, with emphasis on the recent past. The context is Sri Lanka.

I have, for some years, been on the mailing list of the Foreign Ministry. Ninety percent of press releases I receive, with due respect to the compilers, go unopened into the trash. As a journalist, the last thing I look for is how our missions celebrated national festivals. Reports about Sri Lankans wolfing downing “kiribath” at Avurudu or singing “bhakthi gee” at Vesak add no value to my journalism.

I only recently emptied my trash. But I found some stragglers. There was one on Ifthar celebrations at the Doha mission; another on a workshop organised by the Nairobi mission; another on Members of Parliament attending an exchange programme in Washington; some on flood donations.

These media releases achieve nothing outside of pandering to the egos of a few. They are a dire waste of time and resources. They do not push any agenda or direction of Sri Lankan foreign policy. Nor do they provide media with meaningful insight into how our missions are achieving national diplomatic objectives. On a surface reading of what is widely and numerously disseminated as news, we seem to have an expansive network of event planners.

Occasionally, there are newsworthy communiqués. One dated May 26th, which I didn’t trash, for obvious reasons, relates to a joint declaration on enhanced cooperation between Australia and Sri Lanka. The document is attached and conveys information of national import. But these are few and far between.

Having covered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I know that officers who head its publicity division are typically educated, capable, savvy men and women. Today, they are reduced to releasing meaningless drivel. I do not know that they can be blamed. They are the implementers, not the drafters of this absurd and futile communications policy. They are often treated as marginal in the Ministry. They are the last to get relevant, useful information. Heads of other divisions consider them a nuisance.

Before we address the role of media in publicizing Sri Lankan foreign policy, therefore, there must be recognition at every level–including by the Minister and Secretary–that such dissemination has value. You cannot promote your foreign policy if your every instinct is to maintain secrecy.  Not only is there a lack of imagination, there is a mental block at the Foreign Ministry as regards the media. They must remember the Right to Information act now supersedes the Official Secrets Act.

A good attempt was made in 2015 to introduce daily press briefings but this was shelved. There is no recent tradition of providing even background briefings to journalists covering foreign policy. I was made to understand that most junior diplomats in India’s Ministry of External Affairs are assigned to its media wing so they are trained to handle journalists. The official spokesperson of the ministry is an important position with time, access and political sanction to deal with media queries. We do not see that here.

So what do we journalists work with? The speeches of the minister are one way but they are formulaic propaganda and insufficient to provide media practitioners with a deeper understanding of how the wheels turn.

The media forms the crucial channel between foreign policy makers and the public as well as other stakeholders such as the private sector and professional bodies. The breakdown of this relationship is one reason why issues like the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement have become so sensitive and warped. These are areas where the media and Foreign Ministry can work together to fix.

While the tendency of governments is to think foreign policy is about engaging with outsiders, there is a component of it, I feel, that involves interacting internally and presenting a unified policy to the world.

If, by chance, that engagement does take place in future, I would hope there is also a crystal clear understanding in the Ministry that foreign policy and media can be uncomfortable bedfellows. There must be a policy of allowing the media its due freedom to report objectively on the pros and cons of Sri Lanka’s engagement in the world. These are the checks and balances needed to ensure that foreign policy brings meaningful returns to Sri Lankans.

When communication with local media is so bad, I do not know what you can say of relations with the foreign media. You only have to look at how India pushes its foreign policy to see where we are going wrong. Has Sri Lanka looked beyond traditional methods? Is there a team at the foreign ministry devising a communications strategy that suits the modern age?  Do diplomats attached to our embassies abroad promote Sri Lanka on the digital space? How many have twitter accounts?

Years ago, I was invited to be part of a group the Foreign Ministry envisaged setting up in order to guide its engagement with foreign media. I turned this down because it is not my job to make Sri Lanka look good with anyone. That is the job of diplomats. Expectations must be realistic. During the ceasefire with the LTTE, we journalists were expected do practice “peace journalism.” During the war, we were expected to practice “war journalism” which required us to put badly defined “national interest” before anything else.

I say, let us practice journalism. You do your diplomacy. But give us the information we need to work with and help us understand what guides your policies. At present, there is next to nothing. And one hopes that this is not a reflection of a certain elitism that seems to guide the thinking of those who form part and parcel of the diplomatic community.

I must also raise a point about internal policies. If a government sticks to democratic principles and proactively promotes democratic institutions, then their reputation becomes incredibly stronger on the world stage, which in turn feeds into their engagement. This is especially important for a small country like Sri Lanka that is heavily dependent on a rules-based international order because we are simply too small to engage with the US, India or China in any other way. I would argue that foreign policy is good internal policy shown off the world. In that, the media will always hold an integral role; one that already exists and does not need to be manufactured.

Having said all of this, I do understand that there are many areas the media must work on to fix. I know that journalists can ask misguided or ill-informed questions. Some do not do their research. Others have agendas. This naturally creates apprehension among diplomats about interacting with media practitioners.

Part of this is due to flagging standards which is reflected across all sectors, not just media. But part of it is because there has been an absence of engagement and information sharing for so long that nobody has any background to work with. When you dumb down your press releases to the extent that you do, why do you expect any better from your target audience?

Regular briefings and meaningful interactions could change that. It could lead to the creation of a press corps that is well versed and capable of understanding the nuances, absorbing and analysing the information and reporting accurately on foreign policy. We see that in other sectors such as education, labour or health. I see no reason why it will not happen here. All this could be supplemented with regular background chats, with the minister, if need be.  Maintaining current levels of communication, however, is unsustainable in the short, medium and long-term.

(This talk was delivered on June 28, 2017, on the second day of a seminar organised by the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute titled ‘Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy: Choices in the Changing World’)

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