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At UN, 13 Opaque Apostles on Ban Ki-moon's Social Calendar, Secret DRC, No Haiti, Sudan in Passing

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, February 9, updated below* – When UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon doled out lunch and some quotes Thursday to 13 pre-selected people who are on the Executive Committee of the UN Correspondents Association, at first it seemed like just a sloppy anachronism.

   As some UN officials have been pointing out more and more frequently since the Free UN Coalition for Access was launched on December 7, 2012, UNCA has been around “since the League of Nations” and so it has a special, even monopolistic, position in the UN system.

   FUNCA wasn't formed for a free lunch, or for a $250 a plate ball like the one that is UNCA's main focus each year.

  And so FUNCA intended to let this anachronistic lunch pass, and remain focused on issues of fair treatment in accreditation, freedom of expression and due process for journalists.

   But then it became clear that not only did Ban Ki-moon dole out quotes to the 13 UNCA Executive Committee members present – even the summary or “highlights” of what he said wasn't sent because those 13 until after 6 pm.

  (Nesirky tells Inner City Press it took that long to prepare the four paragraph highlights, and thus that the resulting headstart to AFP and Xinhua was unintentional.)

  And even then, at least one major wire service, a FUNCA member, wasn't sent even the highlights. (Nesirky tells Inner City Press this was just a "technical glitch.)

   After receiving complaints from members of FUNCA, UNCA and both, Inner City Press on February 8 decided to ask Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky for an on the record explanation, before asking the other questions it had for the day, concerning Sudan, Congo, Haiti and other countries with UN Missions.

   But in an exchange from which the UNTV webcast abruptly cut away, Nesirky insisted that Ban Ki-moon “does not have to justify or explain his social calendar,” and refused to provide even on a delay the transcript of what Ban doled out to the UNCA Executive Committee, saying some was off the record. See here, at Minute 13.

   Inner City Press had just rushed to the UN and its noon briefing from an off the record briefing at a Security Council member's mission.

  Does Ban believe that only the 13 he met with, at least five of whom took their post with no competition or vetting, can abide by off the record rules? Are all other UN correspondents other than these untrustworthy?

   Here as shown in the UN's own photograph, re-tweeted by UNCA president Pamela Falk, is a list of the UNCA (now Ban Ki-moon) thirteen:

Tim Witcher of Agence France Presse; Pamela S. Falk of CBS; Lou Charbonneau of Reuters; Ali Barada of An-Nahar; Denis Fitzgerald of Saudi Press Agency*; Melissa Kent of CBC; Sylviane Zehil of L'Orient le Jour; Kahraman Halicelik of Turkish Radio & TV; Bouchra Benyoussef of Maghreb Arab Press; Yasuomi Sawa of Kyodo News; Zhenqiu Gu of Xinhua and Masood Haider of Dawn (as noted, see video here from Minute 16:45).

   Nesirky in a response he called carefully worded acknowledged that none of the UNCA 13 had raised any Haiti question, despite the UN's role in bringing cholera there.

  There was a discussion of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nesirky said, but none of it was in the summary, and no transcript was provided. Was it like the UN's previous anonymous declaration of war in the Congo, through many of these same correspondents?

   It is to many, including the UNCA members who did not get any transcript but saw their Executive Committee's stories, a stretch to characterize this as just an item on Ban Ki-moon's "social calendar."

   Sudan, tellingly, came up “only in passing.” These are Ban Ki-moon's 13, who later on Friday mocked an alleged victim of sexual abuse on their anonymous social media account.*

These are the Ban Ki-moon 13 – apostles, but apostles of what? Certainly not of transparency.

* -- update of Feb. 9, 11:11 am: after publication of the above, one of the 13, Denis Fitzgerald, wrote in at 10:55 am to say he was not at the referenced off the record briefing and that "I am not part of a false social media account."

  Noted, though given that account's content, it is attibutable to the group. Certain formal requests were made by the Free UN Coalition for Access to Fitzgerald, regarding his claim to not be a "part" of the anonymous social media account and anti-free speech campaign, and to "release any and all recordings of the February 7 session with Ban Ki-moon to all reporters accredited at the UN."

  On that, it appears there are still 13, and not the claimed 12, apostles of opacity.  Watch this site.

Here is a transcription, the last part in brackets was not shown on UNTV:

Inner City Press: Some people have had questions: yesterday around 6:00 p.m., there was an e-mail sent out by your office containing highlights for answers about apparently what was a discussion earlier in the day with a select group of correspondents. And I wanted to know, and I believe a major wire service, actually a member of the Free UN Coalition for Access, has asked you as well, what was the basis of selecting those 13 journalists, and what was the arrangement? Were they under some embargo until you put it out, or was this giving to 13 media outlets a jump-start on the answers? And I also want to know whether he said anything in this session with the UNCA Executive Committee concerning either Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Haiti, and if so, if we can get a transcript of it?

Spokesman Martin Nesirky: I’m going to choose my words very carefully, Matthew.

Inner City Press: I did, as well.

Spokesperson: I know you did. That’s why I’m trying to reciprocate. The first thing is that the Secretary-General does not have to justify or explain his social calendar. Full stop. Secondly, the information that was provided — the highlights, as you put it, that were provided — were not somehow embargoed or held back. My colleagues in my office worked extremely hard to transcribe that information. As soon as it was transcribed, it was put out. And there was no question of waiting until someone had filed a story. So you should understand that. The third point is that this information that was provided was an attempt to provide all correspondents, all correspondents, who receive our e-mails, to cover those aspects which were evidently newsworthy. And was there some discussion of [Democratic Republic of the Congo]? Yes, there was. Was there discussion of Haiti? No, there was not. Was there discussion of Sudan? In passing. And, finally, no, we will not provide a full transcript. Part of the conversation was on the record, part of the conversation was off the record. And I would also want to say that, just to reiterate what I said at the beginning, we don’t have to justify or explain the Secretary-General’s social calendar. Okay?

Inner City Press: Then I’m going to ask one follow-up --

Spokesman Nesirky: One thing, one thing I forgot. There appears to be a technical glitch: two people did not receive the e-mail, to our knowledge, that contained that information. One of the people was the person who came and spoke to you, it would seem.

Inner City Press: Okay. Here’s what I wanted to ask you, and we’ve had this discussion once before, maybe more than once. But, in one discussion, you’d said your office doesn’t play favorites, that you simply announce UNCA events as a courtesy. But, this is an event, as you may know, there’s some controversy here, whether there’s only one organization representing journalists or more. Social calendar’s one thing; the Department of Public Information, at the highest levels, has said it’s looking at this issue of whether there’s a need to be responsive to more than one organization. So, it is a choice, so my question to you is--

Spokesman Nesirky: Matthew, Matthew, what is your question?

Inner City Press: basically, you’re creating a situation in which wire services are encouraged to join UNCA in order to get this head-start, or this information off the record, and if they don’t, they don’t get the information, even in summary fashion, [and it’s not fair. That’s my question.

Spokesman Nesirky: Here’s an interesting thing, Matthew: one of the key global wire services was not at the lunch. And, if you look at the coverage of the comments that were made, a lot of the stories were by that wire service. And I don’t recall getting a complaint by that wire service. But, rather than belabor the point here, I do just want to underscore that these two things are not mutually exclusive. The Secretary-General’s social calendar does not need to be explained. Any efforts there may be to be even more embracing beyond taking many questions from you, here, every day, for example, there may be efforts under way to do that. The two things are not mutually exclusive. Other questions? No? Thanks very much. Have a good afternoon. Thank you very much.]

   Actually, there were more questions, but Nesirky ended the briefing and walked out.

  The last minute, in brackets and italics, were not included in the UNTV archive – the video was cut off. See here, at Minute 13. The wire service Nesirky referred to, that same day, mis-identified UK Ambassador to the UN Mark Lyall Grant as “Mary” Lyall Grant.

  Perhaps they were too focused on retyping the late-provided Ban summary. Some system. Watch this site.

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