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In Congo, UN Controls Radio Content But Will Not Show the Contract, Journalists in Danger

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

UNITED NATIONS, April 3 -- While espousing commitment to press independence, transparency and freedom of information, the UN has a secret memorandum of understanding with the largest radio station in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, under which disputes about content are be to be decided by the UN, not the journalists or editor at the station, Radio Okapi.

    This emerged in response to questions after a screening Thursday at the UN in New York of a film about the station, Ondes de Choc. The documentary, called "Shock Waves" in English, profiles three courageous radio journalists, but does not mention the UN's financial and editorial control. Inner City Press asked if the station had ever for example put rebel general Laurent Nkunda on the air, and whether it has recently put on the air Jean-Pierre Bemba, whose life was threatened during last year's elections. "We don't have his phone number," the station's editor replied. Other questions arose about whether and how Okabi can cover sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers and reports of UN peacekeepers trading guns and gold in the Eastern Congo.

            Three UN officials spoke after the screening. Inner City Press asked Kevin S. Kennedy, in charge of Africa for the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, where to get a copy of the memorandum of understanding which he had described. Mr. Kennedy shook his head, saying that it is not a public document, that the UN Office of Legal Affairs would have to get involved. (The head of that Office has recently declined to answer questions following coverage of his omission from the public financial disclosure which he filed of housing subsidies paid by the Swiss government.)

            Mr. Kennedy suggested that perhaps the counter-party to the MOU agreement, the Swiss-based Hirondelle Foundation, could show its copy. No, said the Foundation's executive director Jean-Marie Etter. He described a range of other engagements with the UN, including at least one other, in Sudan, that appears governed by an editorial Memorandum of Understanding. Etter said that the UN station, Radio Miraya, should have the right to broadcast throughout Sudan, but is being confined to the southern part of the country.

   Given that the UN refers to national sovereignty whenever it wants to dodge an issue -- for example, the recent pardon in Chad and release in France of the Zoe's Ark staffers who kidnapped 103 children -- Inner City Press asked for the basis of the claim that the UN can broadcast throughout Sudan. "The Security Council," Etter said, referring to Council resolutions which set up the UNMIS mandate and mission. But if, as Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said earlier this week, the Security Council is not an Elections Board, how much less is it a media licensing body?

It cannot be emphasized enough that the front-line reporters who work for Okapi do so at great risk and with the goal of helping their country, as evidenced by the film, which despite some missing issues is well worth seeing.

Taking notes on a burning Andropov on a UN-managed runway: will it be reported?

            Even after the panel discussion, it remained unclear how much the UN spends on Radio Okapi. A glossy hand-out in a DPKO file folder made available at the auditorium entrance listed, as "operating budget for 2008," $4.5 "million (Fondation Hirondelle's contribution)." No UN contribution was listed. During the panel discussion, a UN official said that the station's budget is $10 million a year, which would make the UN's contribution $5.5 million. Afterwards, one UN staffer put the UN's pay-out at $8 million, while another called it "incalculable," given that the UN provides premises, travel, security and other services.

            An Okapi journalist was killed in Bukavu last year, Serge Maheshe, and the government's purported investigation and trial of his killers has left organizations such as Reporters without Borders skeptical, as well as noting the death of non-UN journalists such as Patrick Kikuku Wilungula, in Goma.

            William Orme, who served as spokesman for the UN Development Program through 2006, praised Radio Okapi as "objected and balanced," and later added that another Hirondelle radio station is housed within the UNDP compound in Bangui in the Central African Republic. Given the refusal to provide a copy of the Okapi MOU in the Congo, it is an open question what editorial control Hirondelle is subject to in Bangui.

Press analysis: For media to be built-up in war-torn countries is important. If the UN is to be involved, it should be more honest and transparent about the control it exercises, directly and indirectly under memoranda of understanding. It should immediately make public such MOU agreements. It is not healthy to be surrouned by media which is tempted -- here, legally required -- to produce positive coverage. The antidote is critical coverage. To be continued.

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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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