This report argues that much of the millions of dollars in international aid that the U.S. government spends annually to build the capacities of journalists around the world can be wasted unless the capacities of government officials to communicate openly are also improved.
In the finance ministry of a country that was once part of the Soviet Union, the press secretary must take every reporter’s questions to the minister, who decides which staff member can answer, and the response once written must go back to the minister for approval. The process can take weeks, often after the reporter on deadline has produced the story without the ministry’s information.
In a Middle East country, a long-time immigration officer is designated as the only person to speak to the media. In addition to press secretary duties, he also handles other ministry jobs. On trips for these, he turns off his press cellphone. When he returned from one trip, he was surprised that a popular TV interview program had put on camera an empty chair with his name on it because the reporters had not been able to reach him.
In one Asian country, a key ministry has no dedicated press operation, no full-time spokesperson, not even a press list. Information is released only to government-owned media, which most citizens disregard. The minister says he and his staff won’t work with the independent media as they only report rumors and misinformation. He doesn’t understand that he has to engage with journalists for the ministry’s side of the story to be presented.
These scenarios are repeated around the globe. In new and emerging democracies, in countries coming out of conflict, in societies in transition where for decades information was repressed, being open with the public through the press and disseminating reliable information in a systematized and responsive fashion is a new concept. Yet, just as the media are crucial to informing the public, so too are governments in getting out information that reporters and hence citizens can use.