Lessons for media from Geneva summit

Amalendu Upadhyaya
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Geneva Summit: Leading from the front while dealing with media

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Two leaders of two great nations meet at a neutral venue known for its peaceful locales and absolute neutral position the world over. President Joe Biden of the United States and President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation came to Geneva for their first face to face meeting after the United States saw a change in the government. President Putin had in his long career as head of state of the Russian Federation had met four American Presidents since 1999. They are President Bill Clinton, President George W Bush, President Barack Obama, President Donald Trump and now Joe Biden was the fifth president meeting Putin. So, in that way, Putin is well aware of American political ‘expectations’ from him.

However, things this time in Geneva were different than what happened in Finland, Helsinki when Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin came to discuss various issues. Donald Trump is flamboyant and loves the ‘media’, Putin seems to know that art much better than his counterparts. Unlike Donald Trump, President Joe Biden is a serious man who believes that diplomatic skills cannot be displayed through ‘media’ but through serious back-channel negotiations.

The American media which was frustrated with Trump wanted to make the Geneva talks as a ‘victory’ for Joe Biden. It had already started fixing up the narrative and the biggest was to project Vladimir Putin as a very ‘small’ man or Russia an absolute ‘non-entity’ in comparison to the United States which does not have ‘democracy’. The story of Putin notorious for making world leader ‘wait’ for his arrival was already being discussed and how the American administration did not want President Biden to ‘wait’ for Putin and hence he came on time from Moscow, arrived at the hotel to be welcomed by Swiss President and waited for President Biden to arrive for the talks. American media was ‘analysing’ each aspect of this ‘summit’ and every effort to belittle Putin and Russia. ‘Putin will use this summit to strengthen his ‘ratings’ domestically’, said one commentator. The other nodded, he must be feeling ‘great’ sitting with the world’s ‘most powerful’ man and getting international ‘importance’. Pathetic to say the least. Russia may not be the same as the United States but it definitely is a great nation. It still inspires nations who fought against colonialism and Western hegemony.

After the first handshake between the two presidents and their footage of the face-to-face meeting, CNN commentators suggested that Putin is ‘nervous’ and looking like a ‘student’. They were in ‘awe’ with President Biden who ‘looked’ ‘confident’ as per the narrative. The meeting between the two presidents took around two hours in person and perhaps around another three hours between their official delegations.

After the summit, it was clear that American did not want a joint press conference for the fear that Putin might ‘steal’ the show as happened during his joint Press conference with Donald Trump at Helsinki. American administration as well as western media was determined not to give Putin an opportunity to ‘shine’ this time and my understanding is that ‘media’ had come ‘well prepared’ to counter Putin. Hence it was made clear that both the leaders will address the media separately.

It was Putin who addressed the media first. He looked confident and was always dealing with the media. He said that the talks were constructive and spoke highly of President Joe Biden. He is a ‘statesman’, said Putin. Then he spoke that Russian and American Ambassadors will resume their respective duties soon and many more things.

As usual, the western media wanted to ‘embarrass’ Putin on his ‘human rights’ record and about the opposition leader in jail on charges of espionage.

American media was continuously ranting on the issue and making it as if Putin has to be ‘taught’ a lesson if he does not agree. Putin is a classic Russian leader who knows how to handle Western media. All those ‘liberals’ got everything in return when Putin responded powerfully and spoke about ‘Black Lives Matters’ which does not exist in Russia. He also said that he does not want to tell America what happened in the aftermath of the Presidential elections when Trump’s supporters attacked Capitol Hill. Putin also rejected the allegation by the American media about maltreatment to the Russian ‘dissenter ’Alexei Navalny who is languishing in jail. Putin said emphatically that America termed Russia as an adversary and hence how can a person being supported by an adversary be a friend of Russia.

The Western journalists actually could not trap Putin through their ‘difficult’ questions. Every time he visits the West, Putin wins the show. After Putin’s lengthy conference, it was the turn of President Joe Biden to speak to the media. As a seasoned politician, he spoke that the talks were constructive and hoped that he would continue to push for American interest. However, the media was not ‘satisfied’ with Biden’s response. They wanted to know whether Biden ‘scolded’ Putin or not. Such a stupid attitude can only be expected in our part of the world where media is a propaganda machinery of the ruling party. As President Biden was about to leave, the last question asked by a reporter exasperated him. “Are you confident that Putin’s behaviour will change?” said the journalist. This question actually hurt Biden and he was a bit aggressive when he said, “What will change their behaviour is if the rest of the world reacts to them and it diminishes their standing in the world. I’m not confident of anything; I’m just stating a fact.’

The president knew the art of diplomacy and being a seasoned political leader who understood that not everything can be discussed at a press conference. Secondly, they are two independent heads of state whether the country is big or small, rich or poor, they are equal when negotiating. It is also a fact that Joe Biden was not speaking to some president in some nondescript country. He was speaking to Russia, still the world’s biggest country and a big power of yester years which has not been diminished as we assume. It is a country which still gives hope to many other countries. Even in the Covid times, it is the Russian vaccine Sputnik which was initially looked down by the Western media but soon they realised that its efficacy was more than any of their own products.

The problem in the Western media world is that the narrative starts about their opponents.

Russia is an independent nation and has a right to defend itself. Putin will not speak American language like the Americans would not speak the Russian language. Why does American media want Putin to speak for their interests. It is the same media which made Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat look like terrorists. They would always question the ‘human rights’ record of these leaders and their countries. Fortunately, all of them were extremely well read and understood the games of the imperial powers. Whether Nelson Mandela or Fidel Castro, they remain powerful, thoughtful and western media understands that even when they continue to write stories about them. All those who spoke for their own countries and showed their autonomy became villains. Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere, Robert Mugabe all became villains in the western world. I am not saying they did no wrong. Of course, the crisis of the global south is the absence of autonomous institutions which made the anti-colonial war heroes as absolute monarchs with no challenge to their leadership.

The leadership of a nation cannot be judged by the standards that an outsider imposed on us though the world is now a village and information technology too has brought us closure yet it is important to understand that media is a medium to communicate the message. The duty of the media is to report and not to push the agenda of their political leaders. Any international media has to provide both sides of the stories. Also, it is important to know that even if America is dealing with a dictator, he is the head of his country and you have to listen to him. It is another matter that American administration everywhere supported fundamentalists, military dictators and monarchs. Who can ignore the powerful General Ziaul Haq of Pakistan who destroyed the constitution and created a Sharia law in his country, found full support by the Americans to counter the Russian influence in Afghanistan? It is a well-known fact that prior to the Taliban, Afghanistan had a much progressive regime under Najibullah. Similarly, in the middle east, Americans supported all the monarchs while trying to delegitimize Iran which had a much better track record of political system in comparison to Saudi Arabia, America’s biggest ally. American human rights concerns have rarely questioned Israel’s brutalities and absolute disrespect for international laws in Gaza Strip and rest of Palestine where it enters and criminalises innocent citizens at its will without ever respecting the autonomy and sovereignty of Palestine Authority.

However, the point that I am making here is about leaders and their qualities. Joe Biden was gracious and when realised that he overreacted to the journalist’s question, he apologised to her before taking off from Geneva. It takes a lot of courage and conviction to do so. Joe Biden deserves our respect and appreciation. We can never expect such things happening in our part of the world. Frankly speaking, we have troll armies now on twitter to trash the journalists. These are paid trolls who humiliate all those who differ from the ‘official’ lines.

Both Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin are seasoned leaders of their respective countries who were speaking as per the protecting their countries interests.

I have seen on TV Putin’s live press conferences and his speaking to his people. They are extremely interesting which shows his grip over the issues of his country. Both of these presidents handled the media extremely well. I envy world leaders who are so powerful with their words which country they are from. I loved listening to Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Joe Biden, Barack Obama, and Vladimir Putin. They show you their strength and understanding of the situation. You may differ with them ideological but cannot really question their understanding and integrity. Western world mocked Fidel Castro and Che Guevara but today both these leaders remain legends and respected in a large number of countries.

I don’t know whether our supreme leader from India has the capacity to handle such aggressive hostile media independently as Putin handled in Geneva? You may not like Putin but the fact is he stole the show in Geneva despite all attempts by the media to make him a villain. And for that you need a lot of courage and conviction. A man who has not spoken to any journalist in the last seven years and who enjoys doing ‘mock’ interviews with ‘devotees’ can’t handle media at a neutral place. A leader’s strength is measured in these neutral places as how he handles the media and explains facts about his country. Indian leaders can learn a lot from this summit that a superfluous leader created by false narrative can’t really respond to tough questions internationally. Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin showed they were leaders in their own right and know how to handle the media as per their country’s interest. The lesson for the media is to focus on reporting and not try to build a one-sided narrative to increase their TRPs. Diplomacy and negotiations are a difficult art and hence important to give the back-channel diplomats a space for breathing so that the talks succeed and ensure its continuation in the greater interest of world peace and stability.


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