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Reuters AlertNet 8/17/07

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At UN, Press Focus on Death and Cockroaches, Caterers Blame UN While Poison's Sprayed

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

UNITED NATIONS, August 18 -- During a briefing about the floods in North Korea on August 17, a UN correspondent asked flatly, "How many fatalities?" The briefer, Margareta Wahlstrom, said there are 300,000 left homeless. (She later added, "We focus on the living").

            "I'm saying, how many people killed?" the journalist, from a financial news wire and thus a stickler for numbers, followed-up.

  "Oh, so you only care about death," Ms. Wahlstrom deadpanned.

            Well actually, no. At the August 17 noon press briefing, another wire service correspondent told Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson Michele Montas that

"In the cafeteria this morning, a good size cockroach was around the coffee and the milk, which of course can happen in New York.  It wouldn't be the first cockroach.  The problem is that when I politely tried to find a supervisor, or point it out to anyone, everyone just shrugged and went about their business."

            There was laughter in the briefing room. "I will certainly transmit your concern about the cafeteria to the people in charge," Ms. Montas responded. adding that "personally I don't think it is the matter really for this briefing." (Transcript here.)

            Throughout the week, a range of UN officials have told Inner City Press they don't think the briefings are going well. One pointed to Monday's extended discussion of the UN's website getting hacked, saying that "it got out of hand, it doesn't look good, this gets broadcast all over the world." While that's debatable, another UN official said on Friday said it's obvious that questions aren't being answered, everything is "I'll get back to you," with the next days' briefing showing that the follow-up never took place.

            Be that as it may, there some history to animal reporting at UN headquarters. The New York Post has reported, on its Page Six, on rats in the dining room, and eels in the sub-basement. (Inner City Press nailed down the eel story, here.) The catering company which runs the dining rooms, Vienna Cafe and cafeteria at the UN, Aramark, accused the Post's stringer of luring rats into view using potato chips from atop the bar in the Delegate's Lounge.

            This enterprising reporter was previously threatened, he tells Inner City Press, by then-spokesman Fred Eckhard, now in China, for reporting on the removal of food from the cafeteria without paying during the transition to Aramark from the previously contractor. Stories of UN food, then, and animals, being by eliciting laugher, then anger, then threats. There is heat but little light.

A luncheon at the UN (roaches and Roach-gate not shown)

            Following-up on Friday's Roach-gate, Inner City Press interviewed a number of Aramark employees, who asked that their names not be used due to company policy (or to "supervisors' paranoia," as one of them put it).  They told Inner City Press that a UN-contracted pest exterminator sprays around the food concessions in UN headquarters at least once a week -- "Saturdays without fail," one said -- and that Aramark would like to bring in its own, more-frequent exterminator, but that the UN does not allow it.

            They noted, as even the initiator of Roach-gate did, that not only do these things happen in New York, but that what pest problem exists in the cafeteria is by be blamed on the decrepit UN building, and not on Aramark.

  This, Inner City Press can verify, having seen rodents in the Spokesperson's Office, and an enormous, waterbug-like cockroach on the curtain just outside the UN Security Council chamber.

   "We do the best we can," an Aramark supervisor concluded, adding that he had tried to seek out the wire reporter but couldn't find her. Perhaps Reality TV or shock-jock radio can bring the two together. For now, from the UN, this is Inner City Press, signing off.  

* * *

Clck here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army.  Click here for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent 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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