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UN Public Info on Kenya & Mali, Reports Withheld, Press Raid Photos Leaked?

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, April 22 -- The UN Department of Public Information has at least three constituencies: the 193 member states which own the UN, the journalists which DPI accredits to enter the UN, and last and sometimes least the public.

  On Monday the top leadership of DPI took questions from the member states on the Committee on Information. Japan asked what has been done to avoid another communications failure like after Hurricane Sandy last Fall.

   The US asked how DPI evaluates itself and its impact. Spain asked about facilities for journlists. Russia asked for more translation, particularly of the webcast.

  Answers to these varied. On self-assessment not much was said. On Sandy, DPI's chief to his credit admitted that there had been failures. On media space, it was said the move-back to the renovated Secretariat will take place “in the next few months.” (This as an e-mail named May 10 as the date.)

Many promises were made how the webcast will get better after something called MAMS, the Media Asset Management System.

  But in the real world, despite months of complaints, DPI still hasn't gotten its existing webcast able to stream on the Android platform for smart phones.

  Though perhaps not DPI's fault, at the recent Rwanda genocide memorial, a survivor's story was not only cut off but ended, simply so Secretary General Ban Ki-moon could go to another event.

  More substantively, at least in the two Rwanda memorial events Inner City Press attended, the UN did not in any way acknowledge its role in 1994, with peacekeepers pulled out and the willful ignoring of memos about the arming of the Hutu genocidaires.

  Sometimes DPI has a tough story to try to tell. On this, Ban's head of Peacekeeping Herve Ladsous is not only unwilling to answer Press questions, but he's now shown to have argued during the 1994 genocide in favor of helping the genocidaire government flee to safety in Eastern Congo.

This is a hard sell -- but when Ladsous had his spokesman seize the UNTV microphone ostensibly run by DPI, there was no public response, just more whispering. And so problems persist.

  In the spirit of fairness, among positive DPI projects described on Monday were a “sports for peaceful elections” program in Kenya, complete with Google+ Hangout, and the involvement of a DPI staffer in DPKO's - that is, Ladsous' -- mission to northern Mali.

  This, it was said, was described to member states. But how about to journalists and more importantly the public?

  That can be a contradiction. Last week Inner City Press wrote to DPI asking why UN reports, for example the recent one on Western Sahara, are withheld from the public by not being put on the UN's website even when they are complete, and handed in paper form to some.

DPI has yet to respond -- it has still not formally responded to 10 proposed reforms submitted to it in February by the Free UN Coalition for Access -- but when Inner City Press spoke Monday afternoon with member states about it, many also expressed outrage.

  Several said the UN's lack of transparency and selective release helps the UN reports be spun in a particular way, before people in their country can even see the underlying report.

  So the question on this is, does DPI and the UN view its duty as to the public, or to a smaller subset, not even member states? Because if member states and their desire for translation is being cited, then member states have to be consulted.

  The UN Secretariat, including Ban Ki-moon's office and DPI, have no right to keep secrets -- from members states, and thus from the public. To use the self-interest of some media as ground-cover for a lack of transparency is shameful. (That, however, is why they call it the UN's Censorship Alliance.)

  In candor, we believe a key need at DPI is due process rights for journalists, so big media like Reuters' Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols and AFP's Tim Witcher are no longer emboldened to file false complaints against smaller more investigative media, and even so the expression of opinions by DPI's accreditation staff does not come off, as it does now, as censorship.

  (Click here on DPI's recent “urgent” inquiry into a single Press tweet mentioning #WW2.)

  There is also the matter of DPI finally coming clear on how photos taken during its raid on Inner City Press' office on March 18 were leaked to BuzzFeed, immediately after that publication contacted Ban's Office of the Spokesperson to ask about the raid.

  Whom did DPI allow to take photographs? DPI's failure to answer only leads, inevitably, to questions about UNCA president Pamela Falk of CBS, who did take photographs.

  To whom were photographs given, such that they were then given to BuzzFeed? It's simple, but it must be answered. Why not take the same approach as after Hurricane Sandy? Watch this site.

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