6:17 AM Feb 25, 1994


Geneva Feb 25 (Chakravarthi Raghavan) -- Three months into his office as the fourth Director-General of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, Irishman Peter Sutherland, rejected the complaint from a western media newsman that the GATT is the 'most secretive' organization and said that he could not accept this criticism.

"There can be no more transparent organization than the GATT", asserted Sutherland at an upbeat press conference last September (immediately after the NAFTA vote in the US Congress) when, with elaborate charts and media hype, he sought to promote the view that billions of dollars would be gained by the conclusion of the Round.

Nine months into his office, Sutherland and GATT's style of transparency and information management (and manipulation) has irked newsmen covering the GATT and other UN activities in Geneva sufficiently to make them decide to lodge protests and seek a direct meeting with Sutherland.

Before and after taking office in July, Sutherland, a media-conscious person, has been meeting anyone seeking an interview.

But this greater accessibility for interviews has been like the claims of more 'transparent' decision-making through informal heads of delegations meeting (which he brought about in place of the old GATT 'green room process).

The new process has helped to inform everyone what the two majors (US and EC) decide and what a few others have agreed to -- the few being those whom Sutherland, on an issue-basis, decides to consult.

His press interviews have served to get publicity for what the GATT officially wants to put across and serves the purpose of media management without full public information, enabling critical analysis and reportage.

The General Agreement, if it has any one credo, it is that of a Contract promoting freer international trade, (but not free trade ala Ricardo), based on the fundamental principle of non-discrimination.

But in its decision-making processes, and in the dealings of the secretariat with the contracting parties, and of the media and interests other than the major transnational business interests, GATT has always been a non-transparent process, full of discrimination in its treatment and handling of its contracting parties.

And in its dealings with media, other than favourites, it has been bordering on disdainful.

GATT itself holds all its meetings in private, and all GATT documents are 'restricted' and not available as of right to the media, until long after they cease to interest the public.

The briefings and information provided is normally oriented to the interests of the two majors, and four or five media outlets of Europe and the US. The needs of the rest of the media and countries receive perfunctory attention, with press officials often unable even to identify names of delegates of other nations.

As a provisional treaty, without an organizational structure, and a secretariat continuing to exist for 47 years under the fiction and cover of the Interim Committee for the International Trade Organization (ICITO) and the secretariat for it created in 1947 by the United Nations Economic and Social Council, the GATT's functioning has been in a penumbra of half-shadow half-light or a window with translucent glass panes, enabling those inside to look out but revealing little to those outside looking in.

In the early days, and the first 6 rounds of multilateral trade negotiations, few anywhere, and even less the media, paid any attention to the GATT. The GATT and its rules governed the conduct of each country only in terms of the imported goods for which it agrees to provide tariff concessions for imports, and for the treatment (equality between imports and exports) provided once the goods crosses frontiers after paying duties and enters into the domestic market, and the array of safeguards and actions countries could take to safeguard their domestic productive enterprises.

Though not in any specific rule, it has been almost axiomatic in GATT that import penetration in an industrialized country in any particular sector of more than 10-15 percent would become intolerable for any government and force it to act.

But the Uruguay Round, with its newer themes including TRIPs and Services and attempts to bring agriculture (an industry in the North and an undeveloped structure in the under-developed Third World) into GATT and its disciplines, changed all that.

The new rules, and the institution to administer it, the World Trade Organization (WTO) to succeed GATT, the GATT's head and secretariat hope would put it on an equal footing with the two Bretton Woods institutions, the IMF and the World Bank, which may have lost their legitimacy of the Bretton Woods system agreements but have acquired more power over the developing world and the transition economies.

The WTO and its rules reach into every aspect of domestic economic life and autonomy of countries, restricting and regulating the powers of national governments in order to expand the 'space' for the less than thousand major transnational corporations of the world.

As the Uruguay Round began its runup to the Brussels Ministerial meeting of 1990 (where it had been hoped but failed), media interest picked up, but with generality of media personnel finding it difficult to follow the GATT and its arcane and archaic terminology and approaches and going to GATT only on big occasions.

But there have also been a score or so of personnel who have been following the GATT more actively, and the GATT's playing discriminatory games among them has provoked their protests.

While the complaints amongst these persons has been building up over time, it was precipitated by a background briefing Thursday by Sutherland (over lunch) for a very select group of 'GATT-friendly' media persons, where he reportedly dealt with a range of current questions -- the US-Japan disputes, the new issues that US and EC want to bring on GATT agenda and the WTO and post-Marrakesh work.

While Sutherland or any GATT official could 'invite' anyone to lunch or dine with them, using them for 'briefing' a select few and excluding others has been objected to.

The GATT press office summarily dismissed complaints of others, including those from competitive media. The German newsagency correspondent was brusquely told "we invite whom we want"

But the complaints of the media, evidenced by the question to Sutherland at his September press conference, has been more basic.

The complaints have ranged from the GATT press office 'favouring' a handful of media correspondents that it considers to be GATT-friendly and likely to promote the GATT and its head by providing them a few hours in advance the GATT announcements, official texts at the GATT meetings etc, to private selective briefings providing more information than at GATT press briefings.

For newsmen for competitive western media, even a half-hour delay in filing their stories and landing them into their main offices could mean brickbats from their desks -- and the GATT has long been playing on this to make journalists fall in line and not raise or report critical or inconvenient questions, particularly over the way GATT deals with the contracting parties -- all contracting parties being equal but some (the US and EC) more equal than others.

In the final stages of the Uruguay Round negotiations in December, the access of media personnel to the secretariat was denied, and they were pushed off to a press centre at another conference building a kilometre away where, as one media person put it, the newsmen were like monkeys in a cage waiting for the GATT press office to throw peanuts to them.

However, a chosen few were given access and enabled to be present in the lounges to talk to delegates during the final negotiating phase.

At the January annual session of the Contracting Parties, newsmen were refused access even to the lobbies of the conference centre where the meeting was being held.

And since then, as the GATT and the US and Japan have become embroiled in controversies, and the GATT head has been holding consultations on the pre-Marrakesh and post-Marrakesh work, official information from the GATT has been sparse or non-existent.