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At UN, Surprise Birthday Party Shows Captured Correspondents, Censorship Games

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, June 11 -- In most places a surprise birthday party means that the person whose birthday is celebrated is surprised, but those present to celebrate it know and choose in advance.

  Not in today's UN.

  The South Korean mission sent invitations to a Korean food festival to be held on June 10, “co-organized by the Korean Cultural Service New York, will be an opportunity to introduce Korea's traditions and its healthy cuisine, and will feature a cooking demonstration of 'bibimbap' (mixed rice with vegetables).”

   There was no mention of a birthday celebration.

   Surprise! The event turned out to be, in fact, a birthday party for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, once and perhaps future South Korea official, complete with birthday cake with candles and canned quotes loyalty “reported out” by UN correspondents.

   Earlier on June 10 one floor below, a large UN room was “re-christened” with a toast by Ban's deputy, whose quotes ostensibly urging tough reporting were passed on without irony by bigwigs in the UN Correspondents Association, given the room.

   It's nice to celebrate birthdays. But celebrants should know in advance and be able to choose, particularly if they are journalists supposedly covering the subject of the celebration: this is the position of the new Free UN Coalition for Access.

  On most beats, correspondents are supposed to cover officials, not celebrate them and their birthdays. But this is the UN, this is how it works. For example, Ban Ki-moon's and his senior adviser's role during the final stages of the conflict in Sri Lanka are viewed by many, at least outside of UN-world, as a major failure. But inside the UN it is rarely raised.

  When Inner City Press reported on the UN Correspondents Association screening a Sri Lankan government film denying war crimes, and the past financial relationship behind it, the UNCA executive committee moved to get Inner City Press thrown out of the UN, summary here, documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act here and here.

  It has become the UN's Censorship Alliance, doing nothing when the News Agency of Nigeria recently was evicted from its work space in the UN, dragging its feet after French Ambassador Gerard Araud told a dues paying UNCA member “You are not a journalist, you are an agent.”

  Ban Ki-moon's communications machinery is celebrated even as fewer and fewer answers are given. Another example: amid up to 30% layoffs slated for the UN Development Program, UN system unions wrote to Ban Ki-moon to protest the cut-backs by Helen Clark, who wants to be Ban Ki-moon successor.

  Inner City Press asked Ban's Office of the Spokesperson for a response -- this was denied -- or even just for confirmation that the letter was received. Even this basic questions, asked last week, has not been answered. What's the point?

  This will be pursued by the new Free UN Coalition for Access, which has protested the eviction of the News Agency of Nigeria - UNCA's big unused room could be divided into workspace for actual reporters, if there is a lack -- Araud's attack on the Lebanese correspondent (this flier has repeatedly been torn down), and direct censorship by an UNCA bigwig, filing to Google here, Electronic Frontier Foundation comment here.

  But the party goes on, from the bloodbath on the beach to blowhards of the beach, to “surprise” birthday celebration that are a surprise to the attendees.

  The head of UNCA, Pamela Falk, tried to privatize South Korea's presidency of the Security Council in May by saying reporters would have to RSVP to her to attend a briefing about the month by South Korea's ambassador.

  This week, after Falk and UNCA promoted an event in the UN that has praised, for example, UN Peacekeeping's increasingly taciturn chief Herve Ladsous and his drones, when Inner City Press went to cover the event it was told to leave, that it was a closed event for a small group of people. Audio here.

   And then they continued to promote it: “Join us!” Well, no. Watch this site.


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Click here for Sept 26, 2011 New Yorker on Inner City Press at UN

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