AS DEBATE raged throughout October at the Belgrade UNESCO conference over Third World countries' supposed lack of control over the Western media, I was visiting two such countries where control was already nearly total.
The experience brought home in the most immediate way how irrelevant much of the UNESCO debate was to me as a working journalist and how the real issues, both for the host governments and the visiting Western correspondents, were being sidestepped and probably always will be.
The UNESCO debate, of course, extends to all aspects of communications, not just press coverage, and some Third World governments voice justified grievances and propose reasonable solutions. But many of the Third World countries, especially in Africa and the Middle East, seek nothing more or less than total control over the image of their country as it appears to the outside world.
The truth of the matter is that these Third World governments already have all the control over the Western media they are probably ever going to have. Furthermore, it is more than they need to fashion, to the extent that it is possible, the outcome of Western news dispatches from and about their countries.
Addressing the first point, Third World governments are never going to sit at the news desks of the Associated Press, United Press International, Rueter and Agence France-Presse and determine what goes out on the wires about their countries, their neighbors or their region. Nor are they ever going to gain control over the British Broadcasting Corporation, Voice of America and other foreign radio broadcasts into their domains.
If Third World governments want to set up their own news agency to compete, well and good, but this hardly seems an issue for international debate. It is almost certain, however, to become a hot political issue among Third World countries themselves over who controls the output and is responsible for throwing government communiques into the wastepaper basket.
Obtaining U.N. or bilaterial help to launch a Pan-African, Pan-Arab or Third World agency also hardly seems worthy of debate. Reuter and Agence France-Presse in particular have helped a number of newly indepentent countries in setting up their national news agency and have established bilateral relations of cooperation with them. So the West is already helping in this endeavor.
On the second point, it is about time all sides began telling the truth and facing the consequences as correspondents in the field have been doing for years. Third World governments have already, and have had as a matter of course, all the control over correspondents visiting their country, the Western media and the news inflow inside their own borders they have wanted to exert.
Witness the two countries I was visiting in October, one in the Middle East and the other in Africa. Both governments have made it exceedingly difficult for Western correspondents to get visas to enter the country in the first place, an extremely effective control over the news and the ultimate in control over access.
If a Third World country doesn't like a newspaper or a particular correspondent it simply bars it, him or her from entering. For many governments, no news is good news and nothing UNESCO says, writes or does is going to change this unfortunate practice. But the issue is hardly being addressed.
Second, both governments arranged all interviews and accompanied me on the trips I did take, often also acting as interpreter. In this manner, they knew virtually everything I was doing from the time I arrived until the time I left and were in a good position to influence strongly what I heard.
Third, both governments had total control over the printed news coming into their countries from Western agencies and what appeared in the local press or what was broadcast over the local radio. Their own national news agencies received the Western dispatches but had a monopoly over news distribution, enabling them to decide what was "all the news that's fit to print."
The one thing neither government could control, and probably never will unless they resort to jamming, was the news coming into their countries via foreign radio stations such as the BBC and VOA. Ironically, their worst problems were not really with these Western institutions but with neighboring radio stations whose governments are hostile and use broadcasts routinely in an effort to undermine popular support for them.
Fourth and finally, in order to file from the two countries I had to have government permission. In one case, the government issued a general letter of permission authorizing me to use the state-controlled telex facilities. In the other, each article had to be submitted to a government censor before being dispatched.
The controls listed above, I would submit, are more than sufficient to shape the news, and probably represent the limits of any Third World country in its endeavor to control what is written about it by the Western press.
The point here is that these controls already exist and are being widely used throughout the Third World. The picture drawn by some of poor, hapless Third World countries more or less being held captive to the Western news agencies may be good propaganda but it is poor journalism.
If anyone needs help and protection at this point, it is the correspondent, constantly dependent for access -- first to the country and then to the story -- on the host government and operating under a series of constraints ranging from visas to direct and indirect threats, as seen this past year in its worst form for those living and operating out of Beirut. (One was shot and badly wounded and several others received warning because of their reports on a nearby country. All left Lebanon.)
Unfortunately, again, it is unlikely UNESCO is going to help foreign correspondents any more than it is Third World governments with its reams of verbiage on the question. If a governments feels it in its national interest to threaten a correspondent, or shut him out of the country, it will do so and a UNESCO code of conduct is unlikely to change its mind.
I doubt even that it is going to influence that government's behavior, for no Third World state, or Western one for that matter, is going to allow an outside body determine what is in its national interest regarding an issue so sensitive to its survival as information.
What, then, are the real issues UNESCO, the Western media and Third World governments ought to be debating? Unfortunately, once again, they are not really amenable to international debate because they fall either within the jealously guarded prerogative of national governments or deal with such totally uncontrollable elements as the character and behavior of visiting correspondents.
The key issue is how the host government treats its visitor and how he or she responds to that treatment. If access is made difficult, or impossible, if getting to see people and making trips becomes an ordeal, the correspondent is unlikely to go away impressed or even favorably disposed toward whatever he has seen or heard.
Many Third World countries are simply refusing to face up to this problem on the worn pretext that they are either newly independent, preoccupied with more important matters or short of personnel. They simply do not want to make the effort and do not even have a policy regarding how to deal with the foreign press.
I was long sympathetic to these arguments and attitudes until I began visiting Mozambique after its independence in 1975. Newly independent, acutely short of personnel and inherently anti-Western because of the West's indifference or opposition to its long national liberation war, the government nonetheless thought it important to have a policy and make an effort.
The result was oversight of visiting correspondents that was closely state-controlled but that aimed at giving them access and therefore won the sympathy and respect of even those most skeptical.
The other side of the troubled Third World information coin is the behavior of individual correspondents. Here again, UNESCO can scarcely be expected to regulate such an amorphous issue as human behavior. The fact of the matter again is that Western media people vary in their established political views, degree of professionalism, personal manners and peculiar behavior as widely as the governments they are dealing with differ in their inherent reactions and preconceived views toward them. Some are better than others and a few are just terrible.
My personal experience has been, however, that the host government still has it within its powers to turn around, or at least mollify, the most doctrinaire and recalcitrant of correspondents, if it is willing to make the effort as I have seen Mozambique do.
In sum, it seems to me UNESCO is barking up the wrong tree entirely except for highlighting the fact that both host governments and the Western media have a problem with each other.
But a solution to the problem lies not in the hallowed halls of U.N. conference buildings in Europe or America but on the ground in the Third World with individual governments deciding it is worth making the effort, devising a positive policy and then trying to work constructively with media visitors.
This is the crux of the problem and the point where real improvement is possible. If Mozambique could do it, there is really no excuse for other Third World governments not to try.