Censorship and Corruption:
Cameroon, Part II, Grip and
Grin, Biya and Guterres
Russell Lee, Part 3 here
UNITED NATIONS, October 11 -- I want to get back in to the UN Press Briefing Room and ask questions about Cameroon but it is long way for me now. Before the UN evicted me, I could go in through their 42nd Street entrance, no metal detectors, straight upstairs to the briefing room. Now I'm waiting in a long line. My backpack is fully searched, as it was a few hours earlier when I first came into the UN. I jog from 47th Street, past the walled-off General Assembly plaza with its Sustainable Development zone only for VIPs, through the rose garden and along the river patrolled by the US Coast Guard. They have speed boats with machine guns mounted on the back. All ship traffic on the East River has been suspended for this week. Hurricane Trump has come and gone but we're still feeling the aftermath.
Finally up on the second floor, the noon briefing has already started. Spokesman Stephane Dujarric is reading off a series of press releases. UNHCR the refugee agency has signed a deal with the Arab League. The UN is taking credit for ending tetanus in Haiti, without paying a cent for bringing cholera to the island and killing 10,000 people. Dujarric calls on everyone he can, ignoring my raised hand. Agence France Presse; Kurdish, Canadian, an Arabic newspaper based in London. Finally there is no one else. Yes, Mister Lee.
I ask about the Cameroon protests, outside on 47th Street and in Southern Cameroon, saying that at least five people have been killed there, mere hours before Secretary General Guterres is to meet with 35-year president Paul Biya. What will Guterres tell him? Is Guterres aware of the protests? Dujarric smirks and answers, and this is verbatim: “We’ve seen the reports I think we would definitely… we would call on the authorities to show restraint and ensure that people have the right to demonstrate freely.”
The UN also says it is committed to freedom of the press, even as it threw Inner City Press out of its office and into the street, and still confines it to minders. But maybe Guterres will tell Biya to show restraint. The meeting is later today, and unless I'm thrown out again I'll get to take a photograph of the handshake and even livestream a Periscope of it. It was for Periscoping in this briefing room that Dujarric threw me out. But upstairs on the 27th floor where the Biya meeting is set, Periscope is legal. At least it has been until now.
There are a series of desultory press conference - a rah-rah session for refugees, a human rights session at which the listed guest, Prince Zeid, does not show up, Periscope here - and then it's showtime. For the Biya photo op or grip-and-grin as some call it, I show up to Media Accreditation half an hour early. A UN Security guard searches me, one whom I've written about because he appeared in photos with now deceased, exposed as corrupt General Assembly President John Ashe. Maybe that's why the guard is patting me down, as if trying to find contraband.
“What's that?” he demands, pointing at the microphone I plug into my phone's earphone jack to improve my Periscopes' sound quality.
“It's a mic,” I tell him, taking it out of the jack and offering it to him.
“Looks like a gun,” he says.
Now we're going up to 27 on the elevator, past another metal detector which they used to scan a dagger Yemen's president in exile Hadi gave to Guterres this week. “The media's coming,” the guard says.
The 27th floor has a closed off meeting room for Guterres' bilateral meetings, and a larger room with flags and a signature book for the photo ops. There's little interest at the UN in Cameroon - it's only me and UN Photo - and maybe for this text. Then just before Biya enters, some Cameroon state media come in. Two of them glare at me. One says, “C'est lui.” It's him. The Internet can make you famous, in small worlds.
Biya looks all of his 84 years when he comes in, limping over to the sign-in book. He has on a black suit and a black tie, and a totally inappropriate smile. I reported earlier in the week that he wasn't at Trump's Africa lunch, and his public relations team jumped online to deny it, tweeting photographs of Paul and Chantal Biya at the US reception and dinner to which all heads of state are invited. I'm still getting emails from Cameroon asking me what's true.
Biya signs the book and stands grinning with Guterres, shaking hands.
Then he limps toward the meeting room. “That's it,” the UN guard tells me. “Time for you to go.”
It's hours later and still no read-out from the UN of what was said at the meeting. Finally this comes, by email from the Spokesman:
“The Secretary-General met today with H.E. Mr. Paul Biya, President of the Republic of Cameroon. The Secretary-General appreciated Cameroon’s hospitality towards the refugees. They discussed the latest political developments in the country, as well as regional issues, including Boko Haram and the situation in the Central African Republic. The Secretary commended Cameroon for its efforts to combat Boko Haram, and reiterated the readiness of the United Nations to support the Government in all areas.”
So the UN Secretary General “appreciated” and “commended” Biya, on a day his forces killed at least five people? What is wrong with the UN? Who will be held accountable? So far, only the Press has been thrown out, with no reversal in sight. I write a story about it, tweet the photograph and add the hashtag #fail. There will be more.
[End of Part 2; Part 3 is on Patreon, here.]
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