Positive treatment of journalists at World Trade Organization meeting a startling development

BALI, Indonesia — As governments, organizations, business and political parties increasingly see transparency as an inconvenience and media as the enemy, it is startling to see an exception to the rule.

The once extremely secretive World Trade Organization has become a model of transparency and media friendliness.

Consider the message delivered Dec. 2 by WTO information and external affairs director Keith Rockwell as 500 media people from around the world gathered here for the ninth WTO ministerial meeting.

It is a tradition that representatives from non-governmental organizations at these meetings can sit in to listen during news conferences but they are not supposed to take part.

Rockwell complained that some have used that privilege as a platform to disrupt the proceedings. He vowed to stop it because it was undermining journalists’ ability to do their jobs.

The next time it happens, all NGOs will be banned from media briefings for the duration of the meeting.

Media briefings are “the bread and butter for journalists attending, and their participation is important to us,” he said.

It is almost impossible to imagine someone in authority in Canada these days offering such an endorsement of the importance of thorough media coverage.

The role of most “information officers” these days is to control information flow rather than encourage it.

In many ways, WTO media contacts are the opposite.

It is particularly remarkable, considering where the WTO and its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, were just a few years ago.

In the early days of Western Producer coverage of international trade talks, starting in Montreal a quarter century ago and continuing through most of the next 20 years, information was a carefully guarded secret.

Little was released until the final news conference.

There were leaks, of course, as reporters pumped delegates for details and tidbits about negotiations, what was on the table and who was squaring off over what.

I vividly remember being part of a long line of reporters inching toward a single photocopier in Geneva in 1993 to get a copy of the one leaked version of proposals that would become the basis of the last successful GATT/WTO negotiation.

In Cancun, it was the battle to be allowed into Canadian briefings for industry “stakeholders” at the end of each day, as if the newspaper-reading farmers waiting for information on the talks were not “stakeholders” too.

Now, details of proposed texts are posted online and Rockwell, along with his information staff, provides amazing detail about what is at play in the negotiations.

They are readily available and as helpful as they can be.

At this ministerial meeting, the WTO actually provided 30 computers for use by journalists from least-developed countries so they could file stories about how their country issues were faring at the meeting.

It is a far cry from the information control and spin that seems to be increasingly prevalent as “the public’s right to know” becomes an anachronism, a quaint historic concept.

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