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Amid Syria Talks Influx, Propaganda Explained by UN As "Manifestos in Briefing Room"

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, January 31 -- When the UN admonishes journalists against "propaganda," as took place before facilitator Lakhdar Brahimi's January 31 press conference at the Syria talks in Geneva, what does the UN mean?

   As Inner City Press reported, when UN spokesperson Corinne Momal-Vanian spoke before Brahimi she told correspondents accredited to the Geneva II talks that their entrances passes would expire later in the day and that if they come back, they will be required to agree against disruptive behavior and "propaganda" in the briefing room.

  Brahimi, politely but firmly, has characterized as "loaded questions" several inquiries including one that concerned or at least began with the murder of seven journalists.

  For the UN, is a "loaded question" the same as propaganda? Depending on the definition, freedom of the press could be restriction or a pall cast over it by lack of specificity.

  So at the January 31 noon briefing at UN Headquarter, Inner City Press asked Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's acting deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq, what are the rules? When would journalists be excluded? What does the UN mean by propaganda?

  Haq's reply, twice suggesting that the question by put to his colleague Corinne Momal-Vanian in Geneva, included that "you're hear to ask questions, as you do.... Some of the question in the past few minutes have had a political slant to them."

  While an analysis of that will await transcription of the preceding minutes, it remains unclear where the UN claims a "political slant" and where it doesn't. Earlier in the January 31 briefing, Inner City Press asked about UN Peacekeeping's Herve Ladsous visiting South Sudan and if the any safeguards against conflict of interest apply to the post the UN is giving to former politician Mike Bloomberg -- is that "political"?

  Haq said, "That's different from simply broadcasting propaganda views with no journalistic content... We're okay with questions that may be loaded, as you must know, first hand."

  Inner City Press requested, as the Free UN Coalition for Access @FUNCA_info has in writing, that the UN specify a rule with clear definitions. Haq again suggested asking his colleague in Geneva.

Inner City Press, also for FUNCA, then asked Ms. Momal-Vanian "for a clarification, in writing... Earlier in the week I asked Ms. Vellucci about restrictions on photographing and filming. While I appreciated the subsequent call, I would still like an answer to that question, and most pressingly to this one about 'propaganda,' in writing."

To her credit, UN Geneva Director Momal-Vanian provided this, which we publish in full:

"Dear Mr. Lee, Thank you for your message. I made an announcement today to all journalists present in our press room regarding a number of matters relating to accreditation and rules pertaining to the conduct of accredited journalists at the Palais des Nations. We have had a huge influx of journalists in recent weeks, linked of course to the Geneva Conference on Syria. Many are not familiar with our practices and rules and we felt it useful, in particular, to explain to them that they are barred from distributing petitions, political manifestos etc.. in the press conference room."

Inner City Press followed up, also for FUNCA: "is it limited to the physical distribution of fliers to journalists or others in the briefing room, and not related in any way either to questions that can be asked, reports that can be filed or other electronic distribution of information or views? And for context, was your announcement in any way requested by the two delegations to the talks (as with the restrictions on filming and photographs), or was it entirely from the UN?"

Ms. Momal-Vanian replied, "This announcement related only to the distribution of material in the briefing room and was made at our own initiative."

There might still be a lack of clarity about distribution in the briefing room -- does that cover one journalist e-mailing to another? To a group or list of journalists? Does it apply to anything sent out from the briefing room?

And more mundanely, previously the Free UN Coalition for Access collected a petition from UN correspondents seeking a work table and electrical outlets at the Security Council stakeout. Was that propaganda? Is that why there is still no such table, which existed in the past?

But at least things are substantially less vague, on this matter impinging on freedom of the press, than they were earlier in the day. There remains a need for clearer rules, and due process, in the UN's dealing with the press. But this is a part. Watch this site.


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