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Sangala Jolie: UN Panned, Praised by Fox TV & the New Yorker, "24" and Harr on Chad, Dueling Propaganda

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: Media Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, January 4 -- The UN couldn't buy better publicity than it received in the January 5 edition of The New Yorker magazine, in a lengthy "Reporter at Large" piece entitled Lives of the Saints, by Jonathan Harr, author of A Civil Action. Harr describes in glowing terms the work of UN system staff in eastern Chad, and adopts without critique their analysis of Darfur. He is treats more lightly the UN's favoritism for Chadian president Idriss Deby, ultimately implying that it is better that Deby stay in power. Despite this, it is a beautifully written piece and may draw more humanitarian workers to eastern Chad, perhaps even to the more forgotten Central African Republic. Stranger things have happened.

  Harr approached Inner City Press in UN headquarters in mid-2007. He had been commissioned by the New Yorker, he said, to write anything he wanted to about the UN. He had watched a few UN noon briefings, and now asked Inner City Press for suggestions on what or whom he should cover.  Suggestions were made, more briefings attended -- including a July 20, 2007 briefing at which Inner City Press asked Serge Male of the UN refugee agency UNHCR about Chad, click here to view -- and finally Harr told Inner City Press he has fastened on Male, UNHCR and Chad. This was 17 months ago.

   In June 2008, still no article having been published in The New Yorker, Inner City Press met Serge Male in Chad. It was a surreal reception on the well-groomed lawn of the French Ambassador, complete with tuxedo-ed Chadian waiter serving whiskey on ice and a small deer frolicking on the lawn. When asked about Harr by Inner City Press, Male nodded but said he had no idea when the article would come out.

  Fully six months after that, the article has appeared. It discloses that the in-country reporting largely ended in January 2008, a year ago. What took so long? We understand perfectionism in writing, but this is ridiculous. It not only makes the article less newsworthy, it makes it misleading in ways. Certainly International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo will like the article, given that it simply posits as the case that Bashir is a genocidaire. 

  Harr does not, for example, mention the UN's $250 million no-bid contract with Lockheed Martin in Darfur. Lives of the Saints, indeed. Even about Chad, Harr does not mention a major news event in the Chadian NGO world that broken while he was there, the kidnapping of refugee children by the French group L'Arche de Zoe. Harr lucked into that story, and then didn't cover it. But this knowledge makes his purely positive presentation of European NGO workers in Chad feel somewhat forced.

Jolie and Pitt with previous S-G, bad peacekeepers not shown

  Is it that Harr, having concluded that the humanitarian enterprise in Chad is on balance good, decided that readers couldn't handle nuance or any countervailing facts? Did the UN shepherding Harr around in airplanes and 4x4s create a conflict of interest, or bias akin to the Stockholm syndrome? (Harr was evacuated when battles between Chadian rebels and Deby's forces heated up.)

  Perhaps this explains of the disjointed, dare we say under-edited, instances in Harr's article. The town of Abeche, which the UN Security Council visited in June 2008, is first described in the article as "Abeche, one of the largest cities in Chad," then is re-introduced as if for the first time as "Abeche, a town once known among aid workers as a place of drunken weekend revelries and romantic flings." Such moment are more than made up for by similes like comparing a UNHCR complaint line in Chad with "a D.M.V. in a land where people had no motor vehicles."

   But if you were a well-known writer well paid to write whatever you wanted about the UN system, why would you turn out a better written version of the type of propagandistic hagiography that the UN itself churns out every day? It's a question we hope that Harr will answer.

   Less highbrow but wider seen, Fox TV's program "24" in late November 2008 teased its upcoming seventh season called "Redemption" with a two hour prequel shot in Composite Africa. There were child soldiers, recruited by a General Juma standing in for Joseph Kony. His movement was called the People's Freedom Army, instead of the Lord's Resistance Army. But there were diamond mines -- think Sierra Leone -- and references to exterminating cockroaches, straight out of Rwanda. The country name, made up, is Sangala. Who is funding Juma? A vague and sinister businessman named Jonas Hodges, played by Jon Voight. Some of it feels like an old Seinfeld episode.

  The UN is represented, or misrepresented as it were, by a bitter European assigned to a school run by Jack Bauer's / Keifer Sutherland's friend Carl. The UN European judges Jack about torture, but then hides with children in the basement. He did nothing to protect the children from Juma, insisting on being "neutral." (The liberal New York Times opined that "the United Nations peacekeeper with a foreign accent is an appeaser and a coward" and called this a "gratifying caricature.") Finally to save himself he sells out the children to Juma.  Ouch -- how does one write a letter to the editor to a television show? And which is more one-sided, Harr's hagiography or Fox's facile caricature?

  So Harr's belated article and Fox's Africa conflation are, as relates to the UN, dueling propagandas. They do, however, intersect on one point, a now-standard trope in Western discourse at all levels: the complex(ed) do-gooder working for an NGO in Africa. Running the school in Sangala is one Carl Benton, like Jack Bauer a former agent haunted by extreme interrogations past. (Benton is played by Robert Carlyle, previously deployed to Central America by British director Ken Loach to much the same effect.) Benton is trying to gain redemption for having tortured a detainee to death in Lebanon by saving Sangalese children from recruitment by the warlord Juma.

  Meanwhile in Harr's article, Western NGO workers are described as either seekers of adventure or runners from the past. One NGO worker in Chad left unnamed by Harr "is a runner, she said, but offered no details." Perhaps she was a guard in Abu Ghraib. We smell a past-deadline and over-budget movie coming on, and a role for Angelina Jolie. Watch this site.

Click here for Inner City Press' review-of-2008 UN Top Ten debate

Click here for Inner City Press' December 24 debate on UN budget, Niger

Click here from Inner City Press' December 12 debate on UN double standards

Click here for Inner City Press' November 25 debate on Somalia, politics

Click here for Inner City Press Nov. 7 debate on the war in Congo

Watch this site, and this Oct. 2 debate, on UN, bailout, MDGs

and this October 17 debate, on Security Council and Obama and the UN.

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These reports are usually also available through Google News and on Lexis-Nexis.

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