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UN's Ban and the Press, Sometimes a Vicious Circle, Of Pools and Control of Microphone

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

UNITED NATIONS, May 28 -- There are reasons that relations with the press can go awry. This column is devoted to only one recent example, with the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary General of the UN, the OSSG.

            Just before Ban Ki-moon left to travel to Myanmar to meet with Senior General Than Shwe, the UN press corps was summoned to a question and answer session with him at the media stakeout in front of the Security Council chamber. One of the junior members of the OSSG came down and said that only two or three questions could be taken. Then he whispered instructions to technicians, "We would appreciate it if you don't give the microphone to [Inner City Press]." 

            This seems more controlling that necessary, given that the OSSG by pointing tries, usually successfully, to decide who gets to ask Ban a question. It is possible that Ban does not even know of these things done in his name. Inner City Press wrote obliquely about the incident on May 20, choosing not to identify the frozen-out media.

            During Ban Ki-moon's side-trip to China on May 24, the day he left Myanmar so as to not be present during the controversial polling in the cyclone zone, occupying one of only three "press" seats on the plane was a representative of UN Radio. Since this is an in-house organ, which pointedly did not ask Ban any questions about Aung San Suu Kyi, back in New York, in an article about events in Myanmar, Inner City Press included a half-joking footnote which in admitted hyperbole said "the UN, on Ban's jaunt to China, allowed very few outside reporters, but made a space for its own in-house radio to come along, as Than Shwe himself might have done."

            Upon returning to New York, Ban's Spokesperson at the May 27 noon briefing did not call on Inner City Press to ask a question. Nor did she call on Inner City Press and allow a question about Myanmar to the UN's John Holmes, while allowing other media multiple rounds of questions. Inner City Press was mystified until it later became clear: anger at what was described as the comparison of Ban Ki-moon to Than Shwe was correlated to not being allowed to ask questions, and not getting answers.

Ban Ki-moon with his microphone - but who control the other?

   To the above-quoted, Inner City Press added an update, that

there was been some push-back at the comparison immediately above, and even some apparently related freezing out from the opportunity to ask questions (which, in all snarkiness, tends to prove rather than disprove the point). Video here.  But to explain: the point was and is that the UN's own in-house media, no matter how well-intentioned, admits that it is not journalism, and does not pursue questions like why Ban didn't visibly raise to Than Shwe the issue of Aung San Suu Kyi in the way that independent media pursues it.

   While the inclusion of the particular reporter on the side-trip to China might be justified in terms of speaking Chinese, it is unclear if the inclusion of in-house media on the overall trip may have limited the number of outside journalists who would go. It is worth noting that the reports of UN Radio were the more frequent pool coverage during the trip. While a credit to hard work, this was also problematic, given the acknowledged limitations, in terms of holding the UN accountable, of the UN's in-house media.

  And again: it is possible that Ban does not even know of the things done in his name.  It is hoped as always that a new era of fairness can begin.

  The Ban Administration's relations with the wider press corps, also appear to have fallen further since the team's return. The debates, which have been kept under wraps by unilaterally declaring them "on background," were fleetingly made public at Wednesday's noon briefing, when a long-time UN correspondent from Egypt asked about "the Secretary General's visit to Saudi Arabia."

   Ban's Deputy Spokesperson insisted that there was no trip to announce. But the Egyptian correspondent, and others, had previously been told about the trip by the Saudi government. Ban's Spokesperson's Office, criticized for granting ABC News exclusive access, purportedly in a pooling arrangement, on Ban's trip to Myanmar and China, sought to provide advance notice of the less newsworthy Saudi trip. But then why deny the existence of the trip and refuse to answer questions about it?

            Complaints about Team Ban's handling of the press side of the Myanmar trip began the Monday the trip was confirmed. While two wire services were invited, several others said they had not been informed. They were told that only six visas would be given, and that these visas would track Ban Ki-moon's movements, from New York then leaving Myanmar during May 24, the day of the voting in the cyclone-impacted zones.  ABC was chosen as pool for television, and BBC for radio. Again, also bought by Team Ban was the UN's own radio station, which unlike the dispatches of the other pool reporters asked that credit be given by name.

            Competititors of ABC groan that Charlie Gibson said, on air, that ABC's Dan Harris was the only American TV reporter traveling with Ban Ki-moon, without disclosing that it was a pooling arrangement.  It is said that this will be fixed. On this too, it is hoped that a new era of fairness can begin. We'll see.

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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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