July 23, 2009
PORT-OF-SPAIN, TRINIDAD & TOBAGO–It’s another hot, muggy afternoon on this Saturday in mid-April, my second day at the Fifth Summit of the Americas. Making my way through security and up the police-patrolled driveway of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, I recalled scenes of the previous day’s madness: heads of state driven to the doors in black cars with tinted windows; the sardine can-packed crowd of journalists systematically yelling and shoving each other around, to get a prized sound byte or photo of the person about to emerge from the car and walk ten feet towards the lobby doors; and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s entrance – and pause to chat with the media – that almost caused a stampede.
By day two, it became clear that while some Ministers were open to chatting informally, others were not. I contemplated, first-hand, how my efforts to reach our Prime Minister only managed to elicit a wave and a smile – as he climbed into an SUV. Indeed, the only opportunity journalists had to question Stephen Harper – known for his strict limits to media access – was a press conference.
Entering the room, I was told that the closest I could sit was the fifth row back; the first few were “reserved” – though mainly empty.
Harper spoke for 10 minutes, most often referring to his goal of opening up free trade in the Americas. He then “opened the floor” to questions, i.e. taking one from each reporter in a select group of Canadian journalists seated up front: in attendance were writers from CBC, CP, CanWest, and Radio-Canada.
In his speech, the PM acknowledged the “distinctly different” approach of some of the other leaders present, notably the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) – a group consisting of Bolivia, Venezuela, Dominica, Honduras, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines – but he said he was confident that they were “a small number of countries on a very different track than the rest of us.”
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, prior to his election, had also signed a joint agreement with Hugo Chavez to join ALBA, but had ultimately refused to commit, until a sudden change of heart in June of this year (two months after the Summit). There is some speculation about his reason for the about-face, though his recent re-election and heading off an impeding economic crisis are possible factors. Interestingly enough, in its Summit analysis, the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs notes that in 2008, the year of Correa’s refusal, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) promised his country a line of credit of $150 million.
That Saturday evening, Correa and Harper met for a closed door meeting, one that Canadian Minister of State for the Americas Peter Kent called “a good session.” Having coerced my way into the delegation-only area where such encounters take place, I convinced – with some effort – a member of the PM’s entourage to allow me to photograph the typical, post-meeting handshake.
Back to the earlier press conference. “I’ve spoken with Central American leaders who are very eager to push forward aggressively,” continued Harper. “We are negotiating free trade agreements, but we have also established good solid trade [talks] with Panama, with CARICOM… Virtually all of these countries put a high priority on opening up markets.”
The overall tone of the conference was firmly established and the journalists respected their opportunity to ask one question and one question only. By the time it wrapped up, an anti-climactic lull hung in the air like the humidity outside.
Instead of using the opportunity to question the beneficiaries of Harper’s free trade policies, for example, inquiries merely floated on the surface of the summit’s activities: what was said, what progress was made, and the PM’s thoughts on Cuban-American relations.
Harper himself perhaps even alluded to the superficial nature of the conference, noting afterward he was surprised no one asked him about his meeting with President Obama. He then listed off topics the two chatted about.
Non-delegation journalists, and non-Canadian journalists, were not offered the opportunity to ask questions. “That’s not fair,” voiced one local journalist to his colleagues after the conference. “You come to the Caribbean…”
To an already skeptical budding journalist, this select group of embedded reporters held the access key to the PM. Plus, in the context of the combined restrictions of the Summit and the Prime Minster’s office (PMO), it was the only key. Thus, as the names present popped up as bylines across Canadian media that weekend, personal and professional reservations about such methods grew louder.
Wasn’t this a link between state and press, one that – by virtue of a free press practice – should not be so tightly intertwined? What restrictions were imposed upon these reporters? Furthermore, how critical can one be when the government in question determines your access to information?
The eventual criticism came sparsely, in a similar surface-skimming fashion. A Globe and Mail article noted that Harper’s championing of free trade and calls to avoid protectionism have “made him appear a bit of a lone wolf at this summit… where the phrase raises a reminder of the failed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas.”
The Toronto Star’s op-ed writer Thomas Walkom and the second part of a summary article by the Canadian Press echoed this idea. Albeit in a more objective, quote-based fashion, the latter in particular highlights the reticence on the part of Canadian executives, organizations, and even CARICOM members over Harper’s focus on trade agreements, at a time when the economic crisis and drug-related crime in the region are being blamed on trade liberalization.
Still, in an exclusive interview with FOX News at the start of the summit, Harper had warned that protectionism is the “biggest threat to the global economy,” and that the countries involved should focus on free trade; the article refers to the PM’s “stout defense of Colombia and its democratic progress.” (The exclusive nature of the interview was carefully coordinated by the PMO and cost at least $24,500, as reported CanWest both before and after the summit.)
At the very least, Harper’s media strategy came to light at the Summit; namely, upon seeing the sometimes chummy nature of reporters and Harper’s entourage or hearing the PM refer to journalists on a first-name basis. It also demonstrated a serious difference between his reserved, hidden-from-the-public style, and those of the leaders (notably, from Latin American countries) who held public conferences. But going beyond that, when one considers the significance of the impact that Harper’s free trade deals could have in the Americas, the nature of the questions and the overall neutral, quote-laden style of the published articles left much to be desired.
For example, on his commitment to a $4-billion financial guarantee for the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Harper said at the conference, “We [the US and Canada] are working to ensure access to credit in the region.” The CBC ran a brief on that fact, noting the loan amounts to double the previous Canadian funding.
A cursory search reveals that the IDB is, according to the Council of Canadians, “one of several international financing groups who pulled money out of Haïti with the effect of further destabilizing the democratically elected government of [Jean Bertrand] Aristide.”
Furthermore, Harper’s reference to Canada’s desired leadership role in the Americas, “reestablishing foreign policies that we’ve had historically with the Caribbean,” might have been a historical hint towards the potential for industry gains at the expense of people’s human rights or environmental protection policies.
The free trade ambitions of the Prime Minister are but one issue the press could have used the Summit to explore further. Instead, they left the analysis and the tough questions to others.