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On Burundi, UN Restricts Torture Report to Swiss-based Media, Disparity

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, November 27 -- The UN is scheduled to publicly release a report about human rights and torture in Burundi on November 28. So far this week, it has restricted pre-distribution of the report to media that can afford to have a Swiss-based correspondent. Why?

   The November 24 announcement said only the "UNOG-based press corp" will get embargoed copies of this:

"BURUNDI: Allegations of torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officials and prison officers; sub-standard conditions of detention; no independent body to monitor places of detention;  high numbers in custody and pre-trial detention; political violence; the Truth and Reconciliation Commission."

    Inner City Press on behalf of the Free UN Coalition for Access immediately challenged this restricted distribution. First Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's spokesman in New York, and now the UN in Geneva have refused to lift the restriction, without substantive explanation. On November 27, Inner City Press and FUNCA asked:

"Now on the eve of the press conference, reiterating the request below, that embargoed copies not be needlessly restricted only to "UNOG-based" press... But the media that have reporters based in UNOG are larger, more corporate media. So that particular embargoed report should be released to all UN system accredited media, not only those with reporters based at UNOG. The Free UN Coalition for Access says that should go the other way, too -- embargoed UN reports should not be restricted to NY / UNHQ based media either."

On November 27, the UN in Geneva via Liz Throssell Media Officer for the UN Treaty Bodies, replied:

"Dear Matthew, The six-hour time difference is very much in your favour, and unlike the journalists here you will have an entire working day to report on the Committee against Torture's 'Concluding Observations' on the eight countries they have been reviewing this session. These will be posted online at around 8:00 a.m. New York Time -- you will be able to find whichever ones that interest you by scrolling down through the countries listed here."

 But this is not responsive. As Inner City Press and FUNCA have replied, "the request is that you not arbitrarily limit embargoed copies only to your 'UNOG-based press corps.' They will be able to publish stories at the embargo time, while despite your message, others will not."

   The UN's Throssell replied again:

"Dear Matthew, The story is a Geneva dateline. The Treaty Bodies meet in Geneva and hold their press conferences here, hence when we are able to give embargoed copies, often at short notice, it is standard practice that it should be to journalists based here. The concluding observations will be available on our website from around 8am your time. It is also important to note that the committee's session was not about one country but eight, and that the interests of the UNOG press corps are similarly not limited to one country.  You speak of the larger more corporate media in the UNOG Press Corps, but, as Stephane [Dujarric, Ban Ki-moon's spokesman] pointed out, there is a large number of freelancers here, working for a variety of English language and other language media."

  Note that the UN, at least in New York, has stated that it does not accredit freelancers.  Inner City Press and FUNCA replied in an hour's time:

"You write 'it is standard practice that it should be to journalists based here' but please be aware: for UN reports released in Nairobi embargoed copies are offered to reporters outside of Kenya and outside of Africa. So is this “standard practice” Geneva (and New York) specific? The Free UN Coalition for Access is opposed to this “standard practice,” which is inconsistently applied even in the UN system. We are very much aware that reports beyond the US (and Ukraine) are being released. In light of the above, can you please state how many Burundi based media organizations are represented in the UNOG-based press corp to which you are limited distribution of the embargoed (Burundi) report?"

   But Ms. Throssell and the NY based spokesperson she copied did not answer; both gone from the office. No answer on Burundi (or anything else.)

Again: Why limited pre-distribution of this report to the media which can afford to have a Switzerland-based correspondent, or "freelancer"? What is wrong with the UN? And what will be the effect, like with the murky "gray lady" system at the UN in New York, be of this pre-spinning? Click here for Inner City Press and FUNCA's coverage of the opaque race to head the UN Department of Public Information, here. The UN must do better.

  Back on November 5 when UN envoy Parfait Onanga-Anyanga briefed the UN Security Council by video, he cited the belated release from jail of rights defender Pierre Claver Mbonimpa.

  But little was said of why the government jailed him: for inquiring into the UN's own leaked memo about the ruling CNDD party arming its youth wing, including in camps across the border in the DR Congo.

  When the public then private meetings of the Security Council were over, Inner City Press asked the Council's president for November Gary Quinlan if the leaked memo about CNDD arming its youth wing had been discussed, what the Council's current understanding of that is, and if possible sanctions for political violence are being considered.

  Quinlan replied that sanctions were not discussed. He said that the Council is well aware of the memo and has discussed it, but that today's focus had been on the trajectory going forward to the 2015 elections.

  Even after Quinlan's Q&A stakeout, to his credit his second in as many days, the UN Spokesperson's office still didn't have or give a copy of what Onanga-Anyanga had read to the Council three hours earlier.

  On behalf of the new Free UN Coalition for Access, Inner City Press repeatedly asked for this, which is given out much quicker on other countries on the Council's agenda. Finally the question was put to UN Spokesman Stephane Dujarric himself -- because it should be fixed. It is not good enough to say that the office of this particular envoy -- a nice guy, we note in passing -- undercuts and is allowed to undercut the UN's transparency - particularly after the leaked memo and attempts to cover that up. We'll have more on this.

Back on September 3, Inner City Press asked US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power about Mbonimpa, and relatedly about the reports of Burundi's ruling party arming its youth wing. Video here, and embedded (with Libya question) below, with US Mission transcript.

  Samantha Power replied that she has raised the imprisonment of Mbonimpa with Burundi's leadership, publicly and privately. (Inner City Press previously asked Ambassador Power about Burundi at a Security Council question and answer stakeout of the type the new Free UN Coalition for Access urges all Security Council presidencies to hold after closed door consultation sessions.)

I suppose the situation on the ground has not changed materially,” Ambassador Power said, “since we last engaged on this... the closing of political space, the walking away from aspects of the Arusha Accords.”

  During the recent African Leaders Summit in Washington she and other US officials raised the issues, she said. The US “wants the UN to maintain a role on the ground in the coming weeks as we approach the elections,” she said. Inner City Press has reported on Burundi using the “persona non grata” process to expel UN staff.

  Ambassador Power noted that the Security Council has held more meetings about Burundi this year than in any other analogous period. One wonders, will this continue up to the election? After? Watch this site.

Updated with US Mission transcript:

MODERATOR: Last question is Matthew.

QUESTION: Matthew Lee, Inner City Press. Thanks for the briefing and, on behalf of the Free UN Coalition for Access, hoping for question and answer stakeouts after consultations to hear what happened and ask you about it... On Burundi, I know that you visited there, and I wanted to know what’s the status of the UN looking into allegations that the ruling party was arming its youth wing and trying to get the release of this human rights defender, Mbonimpa, who is, I believe still in jail after several months.  Thanks.

AMBASSADOR POWER:On Burundi, I personally raised the case of the human rights defender and lawyer that you mentioned many, many times publicly and privately with the Burundian leadership. I think the – I suppose the situation on the ground has not changed materially since we last engaged on this. We still have real concerns about the closing of political space, the walking away from aspects of the Arusha Accords, which have been the foundation on which Burundi’s stability and peace and reconciliation have been predicated. All of those concerns remain, and they were raised by myself and by other American officials in the African Leaders Summit when President Nkurunziza visited not long ago.

The only thing I can say I guess beyond that at this point is that we are also deeply committed to ensuring that the UN maintains a role – an important role on the ground in Burundi in the coming weeks, particularly as we approach the elections, which are likely to be a very tense time, given what the government has done against opposition parties, and given that, again, the circumstances for civil society and the opposition have grown much more difficult in recent weeks. We don’t have reason to expect that things are suddenly going to open and that’s going to create tension, and I will note that the Council, I think, has met more on Burundi in recent months than probably in any other analogous period.

So again, this is something that I think we have made our views as a council and we have made our views bilaterally speaking by national capacity very well known to the Burundi authorities at a very combustible time. Thank you, everybody.


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