Last week, as diplomats and politicians at the UNESCO conference in Paris talked grandly about building a "new international information order" to correct the alleged bias of the big Western news agencies towards the Third World, Boan Francuski grappled with the everday problems of running what amounts to the world's first Third World news agency.
A former foreign correspondent in Moscow, Francuski is now a duty editor for the nonaligned news pool organized by the government-supervised Yugoslav news agency Tanjug. As Western and Eastern delegates in Paris reported were narrowing their differences on a declaration on the mass media, he was busy sifting through piles of copy reaching Belgrade from the 50 or so very diverse news organizations around the world that contribute to the pool.
A mimeographed bulletin from the Somali news agency SOnna lands on his desk two weeks late. Most of reports are long outdated, but Francuski salvages a 200-word items headlined "Eradication of Smallpox." Tanjung teleprinters around the world chatter out: Mogadshu, Nov. 11. (Sonna) - "Smallpox, a dangerous epidemic of great concern to international health, has been eradicated from Somalia a year ago," according to the Somali minister of health.
A telexed dispatch is received from the Angolan news agency Angop in Luanda, concerning the celebration of the third anniversary of Angolan independence. Not exactly dramatic news. Francuski admits, but Angop contributions to the pool are fairly rare, so the 300-word piece is used in full.
A lengthy cable arrives overnight from the Libyan news agency Jana, one of the pool's most regular contributors. Francuski glances over the copy - "Col. Okopafi explains the backwardness of Moslems." "Islam is agianst capitalism, says Col. Quaddafi."
These items are not written in pool language," he says, discarding the entire cable.
Three years after its lauching amid expressions of grave dissatisfaction with Western news coverage of the Third World, the nonaligned pool is caught between conflicting interests and limited resources. The most important constaints on its operations are the censorship of news for political reasons, poor communications, the lack of trained journalist, and the sheer diversity of the countries which participate in the pool - some of them bitter enemies despite their common membership in the nonaligned movement.
Pool members ranged from Tanjung with 45 correspondents around the world to newly established news agencies of some African countries which, as one Tanjung journalist remarked, "have only one employe: the director general." The pool does not discriminate between news received from countries with a relatively free press such as Sri Lanka or Mexico and from countries such as Cambodia and Ethiopia, where all news is tightly controlled.
In theory, all pool members have equal rights. They have the right both to send their news to any regional re-distributing center (at present Yugoslavia, Cuba, Iraq, Tunisia, Morocco and India) or to act as a redistributing center themselves. Each country is in position to control all the news about itself that appears in the pool.
In practice, however, some pool members are clearly more equal than others. Tanjung's sophiscated communications system and world news service in three languages (English, French, and Spanish) have given it a preeminent position. Its pool output is the most widely circulated and most influential.
The pool was originally set up to provide an alternative to what many African and Asian leaders described as the biased, inadequate and distorted information about their countries from the Western news media. An analysis of last week's pool output shows that it certainly projects a different picture of life in nonaligned countries from that presented in the West. Whether it is more accurate one, however, is open to question.
Of the 200 or so stories transmitted by Tanjung in its pool service last week, over 40 percent concerned the activities of nonaligned governments. One-fourth dealth with trade, aid or development, 10 percent with the work of international organizations like the United Nations or UNESCO, and 7 percent with liberation movements. Disputes between individual nonaligned countries were referred to in 20 percent of the stories while 18 percent concerned Yugoslavia.
History and culture were mentioned in less than 2 percent of the reports. Meanwhile, references to crime, coups, famines and disasters - allegedly the Western news media's staple coverage of the Third World - occurred in only 2 percent of the stories.
A vivid illustration of the inadequacy of the pool's own reporting of Third World affairs was its coverage of Uganda's incursion into Tanzania, a dispute with important implications for many nonaligned countries. Uganda President Idi Amin's offer to withdraw his troops from Tanzania was reported by the Western agencies withing minutes of his broadcast over Radio Kampala. It was not mentioned by the pool until two days later in a Moroccan news agency dispatch.
Asked about the big gaps in coverage of the Uganda-Tanzania dispute, a pool editor shrugged his shoulders and remarked: "Tanzania has a news agency, Shihata, but we rarely hear from them. As for Uganda, as far as we know they don't have a news agency at all."
A complicating factor is the extreme political sensitivity of such disputes. The pool is intended to improve co-operation between nonaligned countries, an objective that might be jeopardized by frank reporting of long tirages against each other. This is apparently one reason why many of Libyan President Muammar Quaddafi's more inflammatory statements are not reported.
"We are obliged to reflect the stands of individual governments," a pool editor said, "but only if they use reasonably language and do not insult other nonaligned countries."
Another problem, freely admitted by Tanjug editors, is that what maybe news in one country appears parochial in another. They claim that such items are gradually disappearing as pool members learn from each other's mistakes. An examination of the pool's output by an outsider; however, reveals that Tanjug itself is one of the worst offenders.
It is easy for Western journalists by critize the lack of professionalism in the pool. Yet given the political and economic pressures it is subjected to perhaps the most remarkable thing about the pool is that it functions as well as it does.
Ljubomir Kucic, a senior Tanjug editor with overall responsibility for the pool, said it is impossible to compete with the big news agencies overnight.
"You must remember that this pool is a new form of cooperation between information media. News agencies are being founded in the Third World nearly every day, and of course we have our technical and professional problems. We must be patient and proceed step by step.
A Western journalist here said that the pool "is often valuable" as a supplementary source of information "but I certainly would not want to rely on it as my sole source of information."
It is a conclusion, one suspects, shared by many Third World countries themselves. Certainly despite all the rhetoric about Western bias, they have been in no hurry over the last three years to cancel their subscriptions to the Western news agencies.