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UN's Ban Denies Being Faceless, But Is Obscured by Gatekeepers

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

UNITED NATIONS, July 16 -- In a tightly controlled press conference on Monday, Ban Ki-moon announced twice that he is not faceless. Unprompted, he said he is not surrounded or dominated by South Korean advisors. And he told the press that "listening to casual remarks by a certain person just walking along the corridor -- that's unfair."

            "So shut down the Security Council stakeout," retorted one long-time correspondent, not allowed a question by Ban's press screener and spokesperson, but still hoping for the future, and so requesting anonymity like the others.

             To quote another correspondent, not from the hallway but from cable television, his network has not used a sound byte from Ban's spokesperson for months. "Fewer and fewer people care about the UN," the correspondent said, blaming Ban but even more so his team.  Perhaps unrelated -- but perhaps not -- a wire service that has long covered the UN is now closing down its UN bureau. As yet another correspondent added later on Monday, the people to blame for the bad or disappearing coverage are to be found much closer to Ban than the press.

            By far Ban's longest response Monday was to a question that mentioned unfavorable media coverage of his first six months. The question did not mention his hiring of South Koreans. But Ban did, reading off from his notes that:

"There are some points that there are too many Koreans running this Organization. I have made it quite clear, through all these tables of organizations and who are working on the 38th floor, the Executive Office of the Secretary-General, as any previous Secretary-General, I have brought with me just a few Korean officials. Of course, the Director of the scheduling office is a Korean, but he is not senior. There is only one senior Korean policy adviser; he is Mr. Kim Won-soo. I have one secretary, a female secretary."

            The referenced "table of organizations" and list of 38th floor workers was requested for months by journalists. It was finally read out on July 13, the business day before the press conference. Clearly, this matter of Ban and the South Koreans is the third rail, or Achilles' heel, of Administration Ban. That is what makes the Press dig deeper into the issue. Roadblocks, stonewalling and not allowing questions will not deter the digging.

Mr. Ban in Turin -- shrouded?

            Even before these inquiries continue, Seoul-based Yonhap News on July 16, the day of Ban's above-quoted statement, quoted the South Korean foreign ministry that "Ban Ki-moon appointed Ambassador Lee Ho-jin as the chairman of the U.S. Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters as of July 13." Yonhap's article quoted a South Korean Foreign Ministry "asking not to be identified" as gushing that "It surely is an honor not only for Ambassador Lee , but for the country for a South Korean to head the special board."

            A question about this article and quote could have been asked at Monday's press conference, but Team Ban would not allow it. They seem to think that reading out denials to questions they don't even allow, and then not allowing reply or follow-up, will lead to better reviews.

            There appears to be a vicious circle here. In fact, on Monday Ban said he does not speak about what he's doing, precisely because the press has called him faceless:

"as the Secretary-General, I have been engaging with many leaders around the world. I've been speaking over the phone, and meeting them in person, at least three or four times, or sometimes five or six times, engaging myself. I have not announced all these, my contacts with world leaders in addressing all the various challenges. That's because some journalists have told me that I'm a faceless person."

            Maybe there's too much reading and critique of newspapers up on the 38th floor, and not enough work. Another UN staffer interviewed on Monday pointed at projects behind schedule and over budget and no one in the high Secretariat seeming to care. "It's like it's always August around here now, even since Ban came in," he said, referring to the doldrums that descend on some countries for one month each summer. He asked, "But six months?"

          Ban's fight-back comments on Monday endeavored to say that a critique of him is an attack on and "huge insult to many thousands of [UN] Secretariat staff" --

"Sometimes, if you say something, it may be an insult, a huge insult, to many thousands of Secretariat staff: very dedicated Secretariat staff who are working here... I would welcome any criticism, but if you really want to know more about me, I would hope that you research or study more about my personal background and character. Then, I think, you are welcome to criticize me. "

            All right, then. We'll get to work on that. Ironically, despite the growing perception of nothing getting done, Ban made it his business on Monday to take a swipe at the management style of (at least) the last two holders of the Office of Special Adviser on Africa, Legwaila Joseph Legwaila of Botswana and Ibrahim Gambari of Nigeria, a Kofi Annan hold-over. Ban said:

"If you look at what and how this Office has been managed during the last several years, I think we need -- there may be a better way to use limited resources and limited posts for overall African issues."

            And then Ban did not once mention in his conference the word or war in Somalia, nor did his spokesperson allow any questions on the topic, including at least two that had been asked by e-mail to the Office on Monday, hours before the press conference. It's not the seven months of summer, said August Man, it's the paranoia and press control. Welcome to Ban's UN.

* * *

Given Ban's omission of Somalia on Monday, click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about the National Reconciliation Congress, the UN's $200,000 contribution from an undefined trust fund, and note the cancellation of the UN's pre-Congress flight to Mogadishu.

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