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At UN, France and UK Privatize Their Spin, US Is Terse, S. Africa Longed For

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

UNITED NATIONS, April 10 -- In the aftermath of North Korea's rocket launch a week ago, the varying communications strategies of UN Security Council members have been put in bold relief. When the meeting of the Permanent Five members and Japan broke up on the night of April 9, Japan was the most verbose, understandable since the rocket went over their territory. New US Ambassador Susan Rice offered only one line as she rushed out.

   Earlier on Thursday, a protest in front of the UN Mission by Tamils, asking for the US to stop the Sri Lankan government's assault on that country's so-called No Fire Zone, went apparently unremarked by Ms. Rice and company. Even China, which opposes both a resolution on the North Korean rocket and the inclusion of Sri Lanka on the Council agenda, offered a sentence to the waiting press.

Strikingly, neither France nor the UK said anything to the assembled UN-accredited correspondents. Increasingly, these countries Ambassador seek to speak privately to a sub-set of the press, outside the UN building, at the Missions or Ambassadors homes.

Earlier on Thursday, French Ambassador Ripert spoke to a by invitation only group of reporters three blocks from the UN, in the access-controlled building France shares with the UK, the UN Pension Fund and others. With numerous France-relevant events raising questions about his country's foreign policy -- the protection of Madagascar's coup leader by France, the French foreign legionnaire who shot and killed a UN peacekeeper from Togo in former French colony Chad, and French foreign minister Kouchner's reported profiting as a consultant for these countries -- Ripert has of late become less accessible.

  Walking past the media stakeout this week, he quipped, Madagascar? Nobody cares. But then the reporters who ask about the topic were not invited to his private Q&A. (Language is sometimes misused as an excuse, as when President Sarkozy excluded all but "French" press from a briefing in the UN's Room 226.) It's diplomacy as public relations, rather than information provision for transparency.

   Similarly, the UK Mission gives its real view of issues at off-the-record Wednesday breakfasts to which only some reporters are invited. Why the media would allow a Permanent Five member to spin without attribution about smaller countries and even individuals, for example those on the UN's various sanctions lists, is unclear.

UK's Sawers and France's Ripert, private spin not shown

  These breakfasts are supplemented by social events, such as an April 4 farewell to departing Deputy Permanent Representative Karen Pierce, held in her amble apartment over Park Avenue. Several reporters who critically cover the UK's foreign policy, for example on Sri Lanka, were not invited; at the event, UN officials like Nigerian former diplomat Ibrahim Gambari doled out sensitive information such as Ban Ki-moon's plans to travel, or not, to Myanmar.

   In the nature of full disclosure, when Ms. Pierce first arrived at the UN just after the last North Korean missile imbroglio in 2006, after one emergency weekend meeting Inner City Press showed her how to exit the UN and asked, what will happen if North Korea violates this resolution. Ms. Pierce gave an answer, which Inner City Press reported online later that day.

  Early the next week Ms. Pierce expressed outrage that she had been quoted. Inner City Press tried to explain that its understanding of the (unwritten) rules of UN press is that Ambassador speak on the record unless they say otherwise, while spokespeople for some reason are usually on background.

  Ms. Pierce disagreed, and Inner City Press out of respect modified the article, here. Later her then-spokesman complained when Inner City Press reported what lead Ambassador John Sawers told his breakfast interlocutors, which appeared different than what he said at the public stakeout. (Publicly he said the propriety of a $250 million no-bid contract with Lockheed Martin was a matter for the UN, at the breakfast he defended the contract, for super-camps in Darfur that Lockheed never built, as "necessary," click here for the story.)

  There must be a reason for all this private spin. But that ostensible free press and transparency proponents France and UK are private spin's main practitioners is more than a little surprising.

   Russia, while having again an increasingly expansive foreign policy, speaks at the stakeout microphone only on issues directly of interest to it, like Kosovo, Georgia and to some degree Iran. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin speaks more to the Russian language press; sometimes if he does not like their reports or even headlines, complaints are made and action taken.

   Among the non-permanent members, reporters have recently expressed nostalgia for South Africa's Dumisani Kumalo, who during this week-long private negotiation would have been sure to come to the stakeout to complain about countries like his being excluded, even from getting drafts.

   Costa Rica's Jorge Urbina for a time took up the mantle of democratization, but as one of his colleagues told Inner City Press, at the UN Costa Rica is not a big enough country to have heft behind its complaints.

   Croatia and Viet Nam, while affable in different ways, speak little to the press. (Former member Panama left little mark if any on the Council's work.) Burkina Faso's Ambassador Michel Kafando is always genial, but he has not spoken to the press in some time. (His country and it capital were ridiculed last week on Jon Stewart's Daily Show, as having delayed the Council's reaction to North Korea's Taepodong.)

   Mexico's Claude Heller, before being Council president this month, told some reporters he was not authorized to talk without specific permission from Mexico D.F. (it is hoped that this month's greater openness continues in May and beyond.)

  Austria is up and coming, but appears subservient to the UK and France. Libya spins mostly to the Arab speaking press. Uganda is rarely heard from; a just-issued human rights report would make for good Q and A. Turkey, surprisingly, speaks very little as well.

 The countries one would expect to speak the most at the UN -- the UK, France and to some degree the U.S. -- do so less and less, at least publicly. Then the UN complains about a lack of mainstream coverage, and Council members complain about a lack of effectiveness.

  Click here for a new YouTube video, mostly UN Headquarters footage, about civilian deaths in Sri Lanka.

Click here for Inner City Press' March 27 UN debate

Click here for Inner City Press March 12 UN (and AIG bailout) debate

Click here for Inner City Press' Feb 26 UN debate

Click here for Feb. 12 debate on Sri Lanka

Click here for Inner City Press' Jan. 16, 2009 debate about Gaza

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

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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