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On Syria, UNICEF's 1600 Death Count Came From Media, Not OCHA

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, September 3 -- On Syria, the UN announces to the media death figures which are derived, Inner City Press has learned, from the media itself.

  Then these are circularly sourced to "UN documents" and given more weight than they should be.

  UNICEF on August 31 and September 2 offered Syria casualty figures it refused to explain, but which went out all over the world.

  After UNICEF's Patrick McCormick was quoted that "at least 1,600 people were killed in Syria last week" and Reuters said he was "citing a U.N. document," Inner City Press early on September 2 asked McCormick, which document? And how was the data collected?

   McCormick replied to Inner City Press, "call OCHA" -- the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

  After three separate inquiries with OCHA, and McCormick refusing to respond to follow-up questions, Inner City Press has just been informed by OCHA's spokesman in Geneva that

"The estimated figure of 1,600 persons was arrived at from UNICEF's own internal monitoring of different media sources. The figure does not come from OCHA."

   The key phrase here is "media sources" -- UNICEF took the number from news reports, despite the adjective "different" and the reference to "internal monitoring OF media sources." Essentially, UNICEF reads reports on the Internet.

   But where do these news reports come from?

  Increasingly, Western wire services take their casualty figures from "non-governmental organizations" or, more accurately, "activists."  Sometimes, at least, the sourcing is disclosed as such.
    But by laundering the activists figures through the UN system, as UNICEF has done, the figures take on the veneer of objectivity.

   Reuters' report said that McCormick has "citing a UN document."

   Inner City Press repeatedly checked, and fourd on OCHA's ReliefWeb site a UNICEF report stating that "a record death toll of 1,600 persons was reported." So it appeared even then that UNICEF's McCormick was quoting a UNICEF report.

  But, tellingly, UNICEF's spokesman McCormick could or would not explain UNICEF's own numbers. Why else pass the buck to OCHA?

  This seemed strange anyway: in 2009 OCHA refused to release very specific casualty figures -- 2,683 --  it had collected in Sri Lanka.

  At the time, the UN told Inner City Press it is not in the business of counting the dead -- Inner City Press thought and thinks the UN should at least do this, where it can. But in a credible and transparent way.

  Inner City Press immediately on September 2 did try to contact OCHA. But OCHA's lead spokesperson is away, as was one of the two referred-to replacements. The other did not initially respond. Nor did McCormick, to follow-ups.

Inner City Press asked OCHA:

Hi, I'm sorry to bother you on a Sunday, but when I asked UNICEF for the source of its figure of 1,600 killed last week in Syria, I was told to "call OCHA." I checked ReliefWeb and found a UNICEF report where it's stated "A record death toll of 1,600 persons was reported."

Press question on deadline, I'm sorry to say, since this figure is going out all over the world: reported by whom? Where do the figures come from? Does the figure cited include military deaths? Deaths among armed groups?

Seems important to answer this, especially since the UN system in other contexts has said it does not have access (in Syria at least since UNSMIS left) and / or does not count the dead (I was told this regarding Sri Lanka in 2009 -- I thought and think that UN should at least do this, where it can. But in a credible and transparent way.

Does OCHA has casualty figures beyond the above-quoted (but unsourced) UNICEF report?

The next day, OCHA replied:

Subject: Re: I was told to "call OCHA" about UNICEF's statement of 1,600 killed in Syria last week: reported by whom? Thanks
From: Jens Laerke [at]
To: Matthew Russell Lee [at]
Date: Mon, Sep 3, 2012 at 4:48 AM

Dear Matthew

At a media briefing in Geneva last Friday, a UNICEF spokesperson gave an estimated figure for the number of deaths in Syria over the previous week.

The estimated figure of 1,600 persons was arrived at from UNICEF's own internal monitoring of different media sources.

The figure does not come from OCHA.

Hope this helps, Best regards

Jens Laerke, Spokesperson & Public Information Officer OCHA Geneva

  Inner City Press' initial questioning was picked up by the UK Guardian, as was the above-quoted OCHA response.

  Still UNICEF's number continues to proliferate. Voice of America at 2 pm on September 2 dutifully quoted McCormick on the numbers for UNICEF, headed by Anthony Lake. Click here for Washington Post; UNICEF's one-week 1600 death count has since been in, among others, Canada's big newspapers, GlobalPost, IBT, Slate, the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast - and in the UN's host city, New York Post and New York Daily News.

 Since then, the Jamaica Observer, VOA-affiliated Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, San Francisco Chronicle, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Detroit Free Press, South China Morning Post, and more.

 More doubts should have been raised: in Syria in 2012, the UN's mission has left after UN Peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said that even observers in armored cars can't get around. How would OCHA have collected figures of the type it refused to release in Sri Lanka in 2009, and why would it (well, UNICEF) release them about Syria in 2012?

  Despite OCHA's belated response to Inner City Press after UNICEF's, in context, deception play, will this be like the Inner City Press exposed but never corrected claim that new UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is a "Nobel Peace laureate"? Click here for that. And watch this site.

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