It is now three years since developing countries launched a news agency pool of their own to counter what they called a Western bias in reporting the Third World. Recently delegates from 65 nonaligned countries held a three-day conference here to assess the results of the experiment.
Conclusions varied according to the political complexion of the country concerned -- from the anti-Western rhetoric of Cuba to reasoned pleas for tolerance from India. The debate indicated that the delegates were more united in their dislike of Western reporting, which they consider sensational and oriented toward Western values, than on what should take its place.
The news pool operates on the basis of various nonaligned news agencies reporting on events in their own countries for the rest of the pool. The news is sent to seven regional centers, of which the most important are Belgrade, New Delhi and Havana, for redistribution to the rest of the nonaligned world.
The pool's organizers say the purpose is not to shut out the big Western news agencies from reporting events in the Third World, but to provide a supplementary service more attuned to the interests of ordinary readers in developing countries.
Initial fears of many Western journalists that the pool was a step toward complete government control of all news orginating in the Third World have not been realized. This is partly because one of the pool's main sponsors, India, has relaxed its restrictions on the press since Indira Gandhi was voted from office.
Another reason is that other non-aligned countries have shown a mistrust of each other's propaganda. Finally, for all the rhetoric about "a new international information order," the pool has proved an inadequate vehicle for bringing that about.
Political divisions between the pool's own members were illustrated by arguments over whether the Egyptian news agency MENA should be penalized because of President Anwar Sadat's conclusion of a peace agreement with Israel. In the end, the conference decided it was not competent to decide on such matters. But the radical Arab countries succeeded in blocking MENA's election to the coordinating committee.
Several weeks before the opening of the conference, there was a sharp exchange of polemics between the Yugoslav news agency Tanjug and Cuba's Prensa Latina. Each accused the other of providing distorted information about the nonaligned summit in Havanna during which President Tito opposed what he regarded as Cuban attempts to foist pro-Soviet policies on the movement.
The pool has also had difficulty in replacing the dependence of developing countries on Western communications and technology. One delegate pointed out that Sri Lanka has to send its pool news to nearby India via London. News between the neighboring African countries of Togo and Benin is also routed via Europe.
The major criticism made of the non-aligned news pool is that, despite its development, its attention is devoted not to human drama but to the activities and statements of government officials.
The conference heard many attacks on Western agencies for their preference for momentary sensation rather than background analyses of the process of change in developing countries. Yet the pool itself seems preoccupied with day-to-day events, albeit of a different kind than those which attract the attention of Western journalists.
Furthermore, it seems that few of the 40,000 words cabled around the world every day by the pool actually get published, let alone read. This suggests that most editors in developing countries may still prefer the West's definition of news to that of the pool's.
The pool's first chairman, the Indian journalist D. R. Mankekar, accepts many of these criticisms, but argues that it takes a long time to train good development journalists.
"Writing a constructive and interesting story about development requires a good deal of skill, skills that many of our journalists do not yet have.It's much easier to write a spot news story about a headline-grabbing event," he said.
Replying to charges that much pool news was merely government handouts, Manekar pointed out that many of the member agencies are still in their infancy. It is inevitable, he said, that they should be tied to governments until they become more experienced.
Since the pool was formed, the big Western agencies -- particularly Reuter and the Associated Press -- have devoted more attention to development news, he said. "They are now more responsive to the information needs of developing countries. This itself is an achievement."