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UN Bans Propaganda, Then Refuses to Take Questions, Crackdown in Gaza's Wake?

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: Media Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, January 27 -- Accused during the Gaza conflict of being ineffective, the UN's media operation has sought to crack down on and cut off the Press. Last week UN Spokesperson Michele Montas declaimed that briefings are "not for propaganda." This week, Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe read out a series of press releases and then refused to take questions even about them during the briefing, despite having made an on-camera commitment to do so.

  On January 21, members of the Press asked Ms. Montas to explain Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's backing away from a call for an independent investigation of the bombing of UN facilities in Gaza. While one correspondent harkened back to destruction in Lebanon on 1996, Inner City Press asked Montas to explain how Ban could commit to Israel's Ehud Olmert that Hamas' rockets would be part of any investigation. Video here, from Minute 18:56.

  Of course it would include that, Montas answered. But if as she'd said, Ban doesn't control where the investigation is done, how can he know its scope?

  The next day, Ms. Montas began the briefing by reading out a statement that among other things the briefing room is not to be used for propaganda. Video here. She said that Inner City Press had been there when this statement was adopted, between the UN Department of Public Information and the UN Correspondents' Association. Video here, from Minute 24:10.

    Inner City Press asked if, as written, this applies not only to the media, but to propaganda from the briefing room podium. Ms. Montas said, "We usually try to avoid to have people on the podium who give propaganda, in the case of UN briefers." Video here, from Minute 25:20.

   On January 23, Montas made a point of telling the correspondent who asked about Lebanon on 1996 to keep his questions "short and to the point." Video here from Minute 41:58.

UN's Ban in Egypt, crackdown on and exclusion of Qs from Press not shown

   Ms. Montas' deputy Marie Okabe took over the briefings on January 26 and 27. On the first of those two days, she took but did not answer Inner City Press' questions about UN system contracting with Satyam, the so-called Indian Enron, and said that the widely-reported nomination of UN Assistant Secretary General Jane Holl Lute to be deputy head of US Homeland Security was not yet official, and so she wouldn't say if Lute will continue working at and for the UN even while nominated for a US government post.

  The one answer Okabe did later provide was to say that a complaint Algeria filed with the UN Department of Economci and Social Affairs on January 14 against a non-governmental organization would not be released, click here for that.

   On January 27, things hit a new low. Because the UN decided to have the head of the UN Population Fund Thoraya Obaid come to the noon briefing to speak about President Barack Obama renewing funding to her agency, Ms. Okabe said that she would take questions after Ms. Obaid spoke. Okabe took three questions -- none from Inner City Press -- prior to Ms. Obaid's presentation. (Obaid did not answer about Satyam, just as she has declined to make even the minimal public financial disclosure urged by Ban Ki-moon, click here for her refusal.)

  The moment Obaid had finished, Ms. Okabe stood up to go. The lights were turned off. In the half light Inner City Press asked, what about the Q&A?  Go ahead and ask me now, Ms. Okabe said. Inner City Press asked four questions, ranging from an increased budget for the UN in Afghanistan and a "loss of confidence in the UN" by Congo and Rwanda, to the exclusion of the press from an ostensibly opening meeting on human rights at the UN in Geneva. "Ask Geneva," Ms. Okabe said. But this is UN central, this presumably is where the orders come from. Isn't it?

  To her credit, Okabe called Inner City Press later on Tuesday to ask to be reminded of the Afghanistan question, and her Office sent a copy of a statement from Geneva. The theory of this case is that these orders to crack down on and exclude the press come from higher up. Someone on the 38th floor -- guess who? -- saw the rambunctious questions about Gaza on January 21, and told Montas to crack down, the theory goes. And things have progressed, or regressed, from there. The purpose of this piece is to provide a snapshot. We will continue to follow the process.

Footnotes: while on Ban's Middle East trip, not only the Korean media Yonhap but also Seoul Broadcasting were given privileged access. When it appeared that only three reporters could go with Ban to Gaza, provisions were made for Korean involvement. Others pointed out, Korean is not one of the six working languages of the UN. But the goal of such coverage does not appear to be UN promotion. So some media are increasingly excluded, while others are beckoned in.

Heard at the stakeout: in the run-up to Susan Rice's stakeout on January 26, it was suggested that the UN Correspondents' Association get the first question. The US Mission to the US worked with this, asking even what the question would be. Other reporters rebelled, saying there was no precedent for this. The level of control at the UN continues to grow. Take for example this leaked document that Inner City Press has obtained scripting Ban Ki-moon ostensibly informal and wide-open January 5, 2009 Town Hall meeting with staff which listed, in advance, the staff members who would be permitted to ask questions. How long before UN press conferences, and even the questions to be asked, are exposed to be like this?

Click here for Inner City Press' Jan. 16, 2009 debate about Gaza

Click here for Inner City Press' review-of-2008 UN Top Ten debate

Click here for Inner City Press' December 24 debate on UN budget, Niger

Click here from Inner City Press' December 12 debate on UN double standards

Click here for Inner City Press' November 25 debate on Somalia, politics

Click here for Inner City Press Nov. 7 debate on the war in Congo

Watch this site, and this Oct. 2 debate, on UN, bailout, MDGs

and this October 17 debate, on Security Council and Obama and the UN.

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These reports are usually also available through Google News and on Lexis-Nexis.

Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Click here for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece about the Somali National Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's $200,000 contribution from an undefined trust fund.  Video Analysis here

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