Syed Badrul Ahsan
The grapevine has it that intense lobbying is going on, especially in the corridors of the Foreign Ministry, by individuals keen on getting the top job at the Press Wing of the Bangladesh High Commission in London. That raises the very serious question of what must be done for the press wings at the country’s diplomatic missions abroad to operate fully and properly under the Ministry of Information. Of course, in a formal sense, the Ministry of Information has authority over the press wings. But to what extent the press wings have been able, so far, to operate independently of those who as part of the Foreign Office man the missions abroad is a question that calls for effective answers.
Given the constant subtle and not so subtle attempts by the Foreign Office over the years to have the press wings toe its line at the missions, indeed submit to its control, especially in such significant places as London, Delhi and Washington, it is important that the Ministry of Information step in and assert its authority in ways similar to that exercised by the Ministry of Defence in relation to the defence wings operating within Bangladesh’s embassies and high commissions.
A vital first step for the Ministry of Information would be to make it clear, formally and without ambiguity, that it has sole authority over the press wings and that the Press Minister, while technically under an ambassador or high commissioner, is accountable to the Ministry of Information, indeed to the Minister of Information and the Secretary of the Ministry of Information. The independence of the press wings must be accorded more substance through having them exercise full authority over financial matters related to their departments. All financial dealings, in accordance with the law, must be the responsibility of the Press Minister and independent of any overseeing by those who represent the Foreign Office at the diplomatic missions. Money allocated for the press wings must be dispatched directly to the Press Minister for necessary action. In turn, the Press Minister must keep his ministry apprised of developments in his department. It says something about the control-freak Foreign Ministry that while expenditure for the press wings comes from the Information Ministry, it is the Foreign Ministry which controls these funds at the missions.
A significant aspect of the Press Minister’s responsibility is to project Bangladesh’s image abroad, especially among the mainstream media in the country concerned. It is also his obligation and responsibility to send to the media back home in Bangladesh all media-related reports as well as all press statements and releases related to the activities of the diplomatic mission he is part of. A rather disturbing sight till now has been the tendency on the part of ambassadors and high commissioners to send off press releases directly, without any cross-checking by or authorization of the Press Minister, to newspapers and news outlets in Dhaka. The Ministry of Information needs to put a check to this tendency and make it clear to the Foreign Office that all press statements and press releases meant to be published in the national media will be prepared and processed by the press wings and that all other wings at the missions can only play advisory roles in this regard. The media in Bangladesh will also be advised to accept only statements sent by the press wings and not by any other wing at the missions.
Where the issue is one of an appointment of press ministers and attaches and counselors, the preponderant authority over the entire process will be that of the Minister of Information. These officials will be appointed and their tenures and extensions in office determined by the Ministry of Information in consultation with the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The Foreign Office will have little or no role to play here, save as facilitator.
Press ministers, attaches and counselors will participate in regular meetings at the diplomatic missions. Such participation will be ensured through keeping the press wings fully informed of all mission-related activities and programmes by the heads of chancery at the missions.
Finally, a major responsibility for the government centres on the quality of the diplomats it sends abroad. Ambassadors, high commissioners, press ministers and other senior officers at the missions cannot but be articulate, urbane and well-versed in upholding the historical heritage of Bangladesh as well as comprehending the history and culture of the countries in which they are sent to serve. They will surely owe fealty to the government of the day. More crucially, they will serve the State, in line with the noble principles which impelled us into waging our War of Liberation back in our annus mirabilis of 1971.
Syed Badrul Ahsan: Executive Editor, The Daily Star