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Transparent Blogging: The Pronk Effect

We could learn some lessons about blogging, honesty, accountability and the distinction between public and private views from an unlikely source: the U.N.’s special envoy to Sudan. Jan Pronk, expelled last month for comments on a blog he was writing about the conflict, has replied to an email I sent to him shortly after he was expelled in which he answers some questions about his blog. The full transcript is below. (My original piece about his blog and expulsion is here.)

His experience and attitude, I think, offers some pointers for diplomats, politicians, CEOs and anyone holding an official position. The lessons are actually the same for any person with information that others may find of interest: try to be honest, try to be accurate, and don’t pretend that there’s some distinction between a personal and an official position.

Mr. Pronk’s blog is unusual in several ways. First off, it’s extremely clearly written (unusual, if I may say so, for someone at that elevated level.) Secondly, it pulls no punches. Thirdly, and most interestingly, he sought nor received any official permission from the U.N. bureaucracy to keep the blog. And that brings us to the fourth point: the U.N. was able to make use of his blog to point journalists asked for background about what was going on in Sudan, but at the same time insisted the blog was a personal one [Inner City Press]. Mr. Pronk sees this kind of distinction as “nonsense. First, I said the same in the press conferences which I gave in my official capacity. Second, how could somebody in my position make a distinction between official and private?”

I think Mr. Pronk is right. There is no distinction between a private and personal comment if the person expressing it is known to hold an official position and that position is known. Sorry, that sounds rather pompous. But if it’s done nothing else, blogging has shown us that attempts to make these distinctions fail. We readers are not stupid, and blogs have made us even less so. We can see that Mr. Pronk’s comments about morale in the Sudanese army are not the official U.N. view. Mr. Pronk sees his blog as part of his public accountability — by informing us of the situation in Sudan he is also showing us that his knowledge and understanding of the situation are sophisticated enough to inspire confidence.

Lastly, the argument that Mr. Pronk undermined the process by not being diplomatic enough is nonsense: He may have upset the host government with his comments, but that was not his job. His job was to try to bring peace to the country. To do that he needed to show as many people as possible that he was aware of the situation on the ground, was neutral, and was trying to inform as many people inside and outside the country as possible about the situation. Mr. Pronk is, like blogging, all about transparency, and I believe he’s helped set a new benchmark for public officials which I hope a few choose to follow.

Here’s the full question and answer email:

1) What led you to start a blog?

I had two reasons. First, I like combining my work as a politician with analytical reflections on what I am doing and on the environment within which I am working.. I have always done so, by lecturing, by making extensive notes for myself and by writing articles. It helps me focussing. Blogging for me was just an extension, using another instrument. I had a second reason: to be accountable, not only to the bureaucracy in New York, but broader. I consider myself much more a politician than a diplomat. Politicians have to be accountable and transparent. I have tried to be accountable by giving rather extensive press conferences in Khartoum. However, the press in Sudan is not free to write everything they hear.

2) Did you have to get anyone’s permission or approval beforehand?

No.

3) How did you maintain it? Was it all done by yourself, or did you have someone to help you post your entries and photos?

I wrote everything myself. I send my texts and the pictures which I choose to somebody who puts it on my site. He had designed the site. I am not very skilled in those things, but it is my intention, at a later stage, to do everything myself.

4) How do you feel your blog helped? Was it a personal thing, or something you felt the peace process needed?

In the beginning not many people did read it. But gradually the circle widened. I got mostly positive reactions, though not many, say five each day. (It is different now). I also wrote to inform people in Sudan and neighbouring countries. While much to my regret I do not speak or write Arabic, there are many Sudanese who read English. These people often do only have access to official press propaganda information.

5) Were there any downsides to the blog, do you think?

As a matter of act, no. I was told that many in he UN bureaucracy did not like this, but I did not consider that important. SG Kofi Annan never mentioned the blog, until a day before I was declared persona non grata. In writing my blog I tried to be clear, but even-handed and honest, not making up stories, but providing information which had been checked. Of course it is always difficult to combine, in one text, news with commentaries. That is the eternal dilemma for a journalist. However, I am not a journalist. I am a politician. It is the duty of a politician to provide opinions on the basis of facts. In my position I had to combine a political approach with the attitude of a diplomat. Some may say that I was not successful. However, that has nothing to do with blogging. I had to combine the two approaches also in press conferences. (By the way, it has been said that my blog only reflected my personal opinion. This is nonsense, for two reasons. First, I said the same in the press conferences which I gave in my official capacity. Second, how could somebody in my position make a distinction between official and private? I have always maintained: ‘’It is not important where you say something, but what you say. If you want to criticize, don’t criticize the channel, but the message”.)   

6) Did anyone ask you to close down the blog prior to the recent fracas?

No.

7) What are your plans for the blog?

My strength was that I could write on the basis of my experiences from the field, as a direct witness. I do not have that opportunity anymore. Moreover, after 1/1/2007 I will no longer be Special Representative of the SGUN. That would make anything I write less authoritative. However, I do intend to continue blogging, writing about issues which I consider important and about which I have gathered some expertise: international relations, foreign policy, UN, climate policy, human rights policy, peace keeping, international development cooperation. But I will do so in a different capacity, say, as an academic.

An Unlikely Blogger Expelled

Although it’s not good for Sudan, I think it’s good for blogging: CNN reports that 

The government of Sudan on Sunday gave the top U.N. official in the country three days to leave, marking the latest hurdle in international efforts to bring peace to the nation torn apart by civil war.

Sudan expelled Jan Pronk, the top U.N. envoy to Sudan, who has openly criticized Khartoum as well as rebel groups on his Web log.

Pronk has been running a blog for nearly a year and while it doesn’t look like your average blog (really long posts, no external links, no comments, blogs numbered as if they were official UN documents) it’s an impressively direct account of the Sudanese conflict. His third post started as follows: 

This week the seventh round of the Abuja talks between the Government of Sudan and the rebel movements will start. Will it be the last one, producing a peace agreement before the end of the year? The chances are diminishing.

Not the sort of mealy-mouthed stuff we’re used to from senior UN officials. And it’s probably upset the UN as much as it’s upset the Sudanese government. But if so why had the UN not closed him down earlier? Pronk, according to UPI, did not offer any disclaimers, but the UN has since made clear he was writing in a personal capacity. The UN has “no rules barring blogging specifically, though employees face restrictions when publishing articles and participating in interviews.” It seems Pronk was probably senior enough, and his comments uncontroversial enough, for no one to mind too much. Until last week.

What I like about it is that reporters tend to meet these kind of people in the field, and it’s great to hear them sounding off about the situation, but rarely are their words captured in sufficient quantity for their great background knowledge and high level involvement in such diplomatic processes to be read by a wider audience. I’ve not followed the tragedy in Darfur much beyond what I read in the papers, but Pronk’s year-long posts are a diary of immense and satisfying detail about the process, peppered by great photos, that are worthy of more than the word blog. 

Take this one, for example, from June 28

There is a significant risk that the Darfur Peace Agreement will collapse. The agreement does not resonate with the people of Darfur. On the contrary, on the ground, especially amongst the displaced persons, it meets more and more resistance. In my view it is a good text, an honest compromise between the extreme positions taken by the parties during the negotiations in Abuja. That is why the UN, like all international partners, has endorsed the agreement. However, in politics objective rational calculations will always be confuted by subjective emotional perceptions and aspirations. And those perceptions are that the agreement does not meet the expectations of the people in Darfur, has been forced upon them and, rather than meeting the interests of all parties somewhere halfway, only strengthens the position of the government and a minority tribe, the Zaghawa.

That too me is very clear writing, reflecting his knowledge of the situation on many levels. Not every situation could allow a senior figure involved deeply in the political process to write so frankly and openly, but wouldn’t it be great if they could? This to me is the real potential of blogs and citizen reporting. Someone who really knows what is going on telling us about it.

PS: Jan Pronk has a reputation of sorts in Indonesia, my current abode. He earned the lasting enmity of then president Suharto by

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