Emailing every country in the world to see who writes back

A journey from North Korea to the South Sandwich Islands.

Requests for comment are basic tools of the journalistic trade. Comment must be sought from the relevant parties to a story as an opportunity to respond to allegations or offer further insight.

Yet requests from student media such as the venerable Honi Soit often go unanswered, with individuals and organisations not deigning to respond. But what if there were a story to which the whole globe was a relevant party? What if every country in the world was offered an opportunity for comment?

I set about compiling a list of contact addresses for every country on Earth. This included all 249 countries and autonomous territories with an ISO-3166 country code, with the exception of Antarctica, Bouvet Island, Heard Island and McDonald Islands, and United States Minor Outlying Islands, all of which are either unincorporated or not permanently inhabited. 

The government websites from which I collected email addresses sit on a spectrum of useability. There appears to be a sweet spot of country size — large enough for a functional IT department, but small enough to gather information in one place — that produces a government website that is accessible, centralised and easy-to-use. A number of Eastern European states are prime examples.

Those of the smallest countries border on unusable, being rife with broken links, outdated information and lorem ipsum. Yet the websites of the world’s richest countries are typically a bureaucratic morass of interwoven departmental portals that produce a user experience as intimidating as it is indecipherable, and in which direct contact information can be hard to come by. 

After three weeks of scouring such web pages (and occasionally Facebook pages where websites were otherwise offline), I had a complete database of addresses to which I could begin emailing the following question: 

“We are writing a story about the difficulties Honi Soit has faced in obtaining official comment from national governments. We have contacted many governments around the world but very few have responded. Does your government have comment on the difficulties Honi Soit has faced in receiving comment?”

Of the almost 250 governments I contacted, 26 responded to our request for comment.

The fastest and friendliest response was from the Head of Communications of the Falkland Islands Government, who ruefully informed me that “unfortunately we do not currently have a government upon whose behalf I can respond, as it has been dissolved, due to the fact that we are currently in the middle of a General Election.” (Incidentally, there are more Honi Soit editors than elected members of the Falkland Islands Legislative Assembly).

As responses trickled in, distinct patterns emerged. The most comprehensive responses typically came from small overseas territories who clearly relished the opportunity to communicate internationally (and had the time to do so).

“For the Åland Government it´s very important as a small region to be in touch with every contact outside Åland. Especially the Åland example creates a lot of contacts. The Åland example is about our autonomy and how a very infected conflict 100 years ago is still in work and it´s also 100 peacefully years,” wrote the Åland Islands Communication Coordinator.

Others were not so forthcoming. Germany’s Federal Press Office was particularly brusque: “We cannot comment on hypothetical questions.”

The French Southern Territories provided a rather downcast response, saying they could not respond since “in fact, we are not a government.” 

A further 22 emails bounced, typically for reasons akin to that of the Nigerian Ministry of Information & Culture, whose “inbox is full.” With what, I do not know.

The makeup of responses was predominantly European, doubtless, at least in part, an artifact of funding and language barriers, though emails were also translated into French and Spanish for the benefit of Latin American and West African states. Of course, the admittedly spurious nature of the request itself likely impacted on the response rate.

Some responses were surprisingly complimentary. The Head of Communications at the Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications wrote: “I visited Honi Soit website and found out what a great newspaper you have. I’m sorry to hear that you have problems in obtaining comments on media requests. At the Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications, we aim to respond to all media requests which are under the ministry’s responsibility.”

Armenia’s Ministry of High-Tech Industry also commiserated, writing: “We’re sorry you had such a bad experience.” So, too, did the Government Press Office of Saint Helena (“It is unfortunate that in the past you have not received official responses from some Governments”).

The sparse website of the Government of Tuvalu yielded no contact information, though the Australian High Commission in Funafuti helpfully provided me with the email of Secretary to Government Dr Tapugao Falefou over the phone. 

Dr Falefou kindly replied with an outline of the “rules on the treatment of information” in Tuvalu.

Colombia went above and beyond, providing a signed response on an official letterhead in which they thanked me for my interest in requesting an interview with the President (I didn’t) but advised me that he was regrettably preoccupied with affairs of state and that my request had instead been delegated to the Presidential Advisor on Information and Press. 

A sit-down presidential interview was certainly not what I had had in mind but I appreciated the consideration.

A+ for esfuerzo.

The governments of Monaco, France and Bonaire appeared not to understand the admittedly convoluted nature of the question, and asked for more details. Further clarification led to a one-line follow-up from Monaco: “But about which subject do you need comments?”

I sent a third re-phrasing but it evidently did not help their comprehension and I did not hear from the Monacans again.

Cuba played email hot potato, with messages forwarded to three successive contacts yielding naught but a recommendation for Alma Máter, Cuba’s own student newspaper.

The Office of the President of Costa Rica emailed me their phone number. Upon calling, I was told to email them.

The most common responses were broad explanations of government communication policy regarding comment requests, such as the replies from Taiwan, Canada, New Zealand (beginning with a cheerful “Kia ora Honi”) and the United States (a State Department spokesperson electing to ring me at 11.30pm to provide the information personally).

Some made particular efforts to address student media. Slovenia’s Government Communication Office offered a sterling defence of the fourth estate: “The creation of student media is important for the development of young people into independent and socially critical individuals who are willing and able to engage in the debate and decision-making on socially important issues, thus shaping the society in which they live. We therefore believe that responding to requests from student media is part of the responsibility of each government’s representative.”

Among the most striking were the responses of the Korean Friendship Association (KFA). Email contacts for the North Korean government are unsurprisingly hard to come by, and I had to settle for the KFA, a pro-North Korean cultural outreach organisation with self-proclaimed, but murky, official affiliation with the North Korean government.

“I think you face difficulties for 2 reasons,” wrote KFA founder Alejandro Cao de Benos, a Spaniard who has faced criticism for alleged sanction violations. “In capitalist countries, most governments do not care about media with low audience [and] do not pay attention to young people, but to big leaders” and avoid questions “because they may expose their positions to criticism.”

The difficulty in finding actual North Korean government media contacts perhaps provided more irony to the comments than Cao de Benos acknowledged.

‘Mr Jake G’, the KFA’s Australian delegate, also replied: “I have read a number of articles from your publication in the past and have been impressed by both the willingness to avoid toeing the line of the Western media narrative regarding the DPRK and your general stance on left-wing topics as a whole” — doubtless a reference to a certain infamous article from years past.

Ultimately, what was most notable was not who replied, but how. Media requests for comment are hardly the most personalised forms of human connection, but even this small cross-section of the planet was enough to appreciate the diversity of approaches and responses people can have to a humble question. 

Send an email into the digital ether some time — you never know what you’ll hear in reply.

Responses were received from Åland Islands, Armenia, Bonaire, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Falkland Islands, Finland, France, French Southern Territories, Germany, Isle of Man, Korean Friendship Association, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Saba, Saint Helena, Slovenia, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Svalbard, Taiwan, Tuvalu and the United States.

The governments of Algeria, Ascension, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Jordan, Lesotho, Liberia, Mauritania, Mozambique, Nigeria, Oman, Palau, Palestine, Saint Lucia, Sao Tome and Principe, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen could not be reached for comment.

The governments of Afghanistan, Albania, American Samoa, Andorra, Angola, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Aruba, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bermuda, Bhutan, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Brazil, British Indian Ocean Territory, British Virgin Islands, Brunei, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Cayman Islands, Central African Republic, Chad, Chile, China, Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) islands, Cook Islands, Croatia, Curaçao, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominica, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Estonia, Ethiopia, Faroe Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Guiana, French Polynesia, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Ghana, Gibraltar, Greece, Greenland, Grenada, Guam, Guatemala, Guernsey, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jersey, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kiribati, Kosovo, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Latvia, Lebanon, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macao, North Macedonia, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Marshall Islands, Martinique, Mauritius, Mayotte, Mexico, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Montserrat, Morocco, Myanmar, Namibia, Nauru, Nepal, New Caledonia, Nicaragua, Niger, Niue, Norfolk Island, Northern Mariana Islands, Pakistan, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Pitcairn, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Qatar, Republic of the Congo, Réunion, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Saint Barthélemy, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Martin, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Seychelles, Singapore, Sint Eustatius, Sint Maarten, Slovakia, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Africa, South Korea, South Sudan, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Swaziland, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Togo, Tokelau, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tristan da Cunha, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Turks and Caicos Islands, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Uruguay, U.S. Virgin Islands, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Vatican City, Vietnam, Wallis and Futuna, Western Sahara, Zambia and Zimbabwe did not respond to a request for comment.

The Australian government also did not respond to a request for comment.

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