Pragmatism and the state- Executive engagement and the media

SHARE   |   Monday, 07 September 2015   |   By Gobe Pitso
Lekoa when dicussing Foreign Policy underlines that is pursued based on national interests Lekoa when dicussing Foreign Policy underlines that is pursued based on national interests

Executive Engagement is quite a broad subject, but for purposes of this article I would only wish to highlight the time factor, and not other areas like Dress Code.  It is usually worrisome when you get lengthy questionnaires for a Head of State, sometimes 15 pages or more of small print (font 10 or 12). If you try to get an understanding of the focus area from concerned journalist, there is an argument to the effect that you are trying muzzle the media, but the reality is that sometimes all you can get from an Executive is 15 or 30 minutes. It is for this reason that Executive Engagement, has its own set of principles, which one is hopeful a majority of people are familiar with, particularly in the media industry. There is a misplaced perception in this country that perhaps the executive leadership has no willingness to engage the local media.
It is always with keen interest that one observes coverage of the executive or leadership in different countries. A comparative analysis of that coverage for local and international leaders in the local media, as well as just an assessment of international coverage by international journalist of their own executive, relatively to the local set up, there is an indication that there might be inconsistencies in this respect.  This also then contrasts the erroneous viewpoint that perhaps the executive leadership in this country has no willingness to engage the local media.
Ambassador Lapologang Cesar Lekoa, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation when discussing Foreign Policy underlines that it is pursued based on national interests. Further stating that Foreign Policy is often an extension of Domestic Policy. He, in addition, talks about types of interest, viz; vital, important and peripheral. Perhaps if one was to dissect this statement, it basically means that when a country is small, it usually leverages on its comparative advantage, based in particular on the principles that are dear to it, such as democracy and the respect for human rights for Botswana.
Whilst Botswana has been criticised or should I dare say crucified all willy-nilly by many of the local commentators on its pronouncements pertaining to issues of international concern, relating in particular to human rights and international law, it does however, not come as a surprise when we are pegged at the summit in the continent and 31st in the world on the Rule of Law Index by the Washington D.C based; World Justice Project.
Our cardinal principles or tenets since the early years of our Republic have always been Democracy, Development, Unity, Self-Reliance, Good neighbourliness and peaceful resolution of conflicts.  Historically, Botswana’s Foreign Policy has been based on these tenets.  (These are fully outlined in a Statement to the BDP Congress in Molepolole in March 1970, by the founding President, Sir Seretse Khama).
In Political Science, classical philosophy, the likes of Thomas Hobbes, usually referred to as the father of Realism, argue that one of the basic principles in life is that “you would not want to do on to others what you do not want done on the self” again the long and short of it is that you would wish for others what you wish for the self. Thus, if the Kgotla system is historically attributed to our democratic credentials, does it not then follow that where this basic fundamental right is compromised, we are in good authority to speak to the issue.
In branding themselves, some of the developing countries, especially the Tiger or Sunshine economies as you would wish to label them, have decided that since they do not have the might or capacity of the big powers, they will be the first to do some things or do them in grand style. Singapore for instance, often times has adopted the strategy to be the first to achieve certain components; “first airline to fly the A380” or the first country to have a “Nocturnal Safari” etc.
Similarly, they sometimes go for the grand plot, like having one of the biggest Casinos in the world; the “Marina Bay Sands”.  Thus, you will find that whilst they are a small country, they have found a niche to brand themselves and ensure that they are on the lead pertaining to issues critical towards safeguarding and advancing their national interest. ‘Uniquely Singapore’, indeed!
Interestingly, Botswana is renowned for its democracy and some of the aforestated values. In this respect, when there was anarchy in Libya and the country was the first to cut ties with the tyranny associated therewith, there was an uproar from the local media. The question that one begs to ask is, had we diverted from our fundamental principles of democracy? We were also the first country to recognize President Alassane Quattara in Ivory Coast, following the difficult situation in that country subsequent to their elections.
Some argued that perhaps we, as a country, were going against the spirit of the African Union (AU), when in fact one would have thought the country was acting in consonance or consistently with numerous AU adopted resolutions that surely underline the principles of democracy, as well as human rights and international law.  
Recently, when the President made a pronouncement on the FIFA issue about matters of principle and governance, again there was a hullabaloo. A few days later, the American President speaks on the same FIFA issue whilst in Germany and it is taken as doctrine. This is, but just an illustration of observations pertaining to some of these issues.  
Prior to the convoluted election period in 2014, it had proved slightly difficult to get constructive engagement with local media houses, but nevertheless the Office of the President had tried on one or two occasions to highlight to Batswana, what the Office stands for or represents. It was encouraging from time to time to get issues based requests for interviews by some of the local media houses, and indeed interviews were granted in this regard.
Morals, ethics and values are elements that are often highlighted when discussing issues of public domain engagement. Upon observing that perhaps some basic principles relating to executive interviews might be lacking, we asked journalist if they had run their questionnaires through their editors, often times the answer is “no”. Seemingly, there is competition for a ‘scoop’, so to speak. Unfortunately, in the process of pursuing the ‘scoop’ indications are that they ask all the questions they can think of under the sun. We once received a 15 page questionnaire; small print/font,  for a Head of State, mind you, really?   
Others are just repeats of previously asked questions and astonishingly, they forget to change the dates sometimes. Thus, you will find a repeat question from 2013 in a different month and day sent through to you. No attempt whatsoever, to even do cut and paste. If we were cynical, we would have scanned these and put them on facebook, or even recorded some of them as they attempt to get stories/interviews, but we also realise that these are youngsters who need to be capacitated in their fields. It is not necessarily youthful exuberance sometimes, they are just trying to be competitive in pursuit of bread and butter issues.
We are also hopeful that they will mature over time and understand the basic principles pertaining to their industry, like perhaps happens in other developing economies, inculcate the spirit of national interest in reports. It is also imperative to understand that sponsorship from a capital of another country does not translate into compromising your interests, since those people might also be pushing their own national interests, sometimes through you. It should be recalled that some have stated that they have no permanent friends, but rather have permanent interests.
In fact, one wonders why we never see on all the major news channels in the developed world (CNN, CBS, CNBC, ITV, BBC, Sky News, EURO News etc.), causalities of American and other allied soldiers in Afghanistan or Iraq, or even upon return when remains are being repatriated to the US and other countries. Is it conceivable that there might be some kind of agreement or request that these media houses respect the situation and affected families, some kind of code of conduct that they adhere to there, but do not necessarily extend to other developing nations causalities of war. Just a thought, beyond the veiled facade or face value discussions and dealing with human feelings in respecting the departed, as well as the bereaved. Is there a cut-off point that perhaps applies selectively in the international set up? 
Perhaps some of the people from these developed countries, in their own space and time, might be feeling ashamed in thinking that the goals they had set to achieve through being principal benefactors or sponsors to editorial capacity building, might have been negated by what appears to be unscrupulous tendencies by some, whose main objective might be to sell papers at whatever cost. Over 10 newspapers, not including magazines, for a population of slightly over 2 million, with a readership that is centred in urban areas, do the maths.
In conclusion, I strongly believe that there is mutual reinforcement for all the parties concerned in ensuring that the public gets the right information. What is perhaps critical, should be to continue to dialogue on key issues. Not the combative demand that you sometimes get, where without much background or research, there is a barrage of questions on why a Working or Official Visit by a Head of State has not attracted the same repertoire of flags like a State Visit. Or necessarily, the demand for a press conference stating regular practice. Having been involved in several State Visits to different countries, I would argue that this is certainly not regular practice. In fact, in Botswana, during the Masire and Mogae days, some of the Press Conferences were done by Foreign Ministers subsequent to the visit. If my memory serves me well, at the old Radio Botswana Building along Sir Seretse Khama Crescent.
It will also be very unfortunate if the presupposition from the local media industry is that the Private Office and in particular the Press Office’s job description is only to engage or respond to the media. I know our comprehension is way better than that, and we also know what rules of engagement entail. Based on this analogy, it should not then appear as if we have created a deliberate bias to engage Government and foreign media only.
Possibly, for the next episode, so that we are in consonance,  we will discuss other issues such as the demeanour or attitude that one carries and dress code in executive engagement. My recollection, dealing mostly with  international correspondents, is that they are well mannered and not combative. Perhaps that element where they do the tough “hard talk” thing only comes after the principal has left and they ask to do their ‘cut-aways’. Basically, they will be talking to empty chairs and re-framing their questions. So what they are in fact doing is just that ‘creating that a show’. Unfortunately for those who copy them, it is like creating a temporary tattoo for a music video and some people ill-advisedly do permanent ones thinking they are copying you. Gape at the same time, like one of my colleagues once said, I doubt there is anybody out there who wants to say to a principal, whether the principal is local or international, that there is somebody who wants to interview you in the side-lines of margins of the  SADC Summit, ‘mme o apere o kare motho a ka go secha.’
The long and short of it is that for those of us in the communications industry, we might need to introspect and brush up on the rules of engagement again. To presuppose that a Head of State has unlimited time is a bit of a misnomer, thus 15 page questionnaires might prove to be a non-starter. Our Offices are always open for constructive engagement, because we surely know that you are partners in our communication processes with Batswana and the world.     

Gobe Pitso
Press Secretary to the President

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