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Reuters AlertNet 8/17/07

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At UN, Sarkozy Excludes Reporters Without French Passports, Tries African Photo-Op

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

UNITED NATIONS, September 25 -- French president Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday gave a speech in which he praised the UN as "the only place in the world where all people can speak to one another." Then he held a closed-door press conference in the UN's briefing room, from which journalists without French passports were excluded. A French-speaking reporter who writes, in French, for a newspaper in Lebanon was asked if she holds a French passport. When she said no, she too was excluded.

            This unprecedented approach was echoed, diplomats tell Inner City Press, in M. Sarkozy's attempt to ensure that during the Tuesday afternoon Security Council session over which he will preside, the Council's resolution to send peacekeepers and police to Chad and the Central African Republic be voted on. African heads of states rebelled, saying they would not be extras in Sarkozy's photo-op, raising their hands to vote for a resolution he would claim shows his commitment to Darfur, Chad and the CAR. After their protest, France agreed to pass the resolution more quietly in a morning session, after which France's Ambassador to the UN Jean-Maurice Ripert declined to come to the stakeout microphone and answer any questions. Amb. Ripert was reportedly deferring to the wishes of Sarkozy, not to be upstaged. Then Sarkozy spoke only to media with French passports.

            Outside the briefing room, before Sarkozy began, Inner City Press suggested to the French mission's spokesman that if the small size -- less than 100 seats -- of the UN's Briefing Room 226 was the issue, the event could easily be shifted to the much larger Conference Room 4, where the presidents of Iran and Venezuela have scheduled briefings. In the alternative, if Sarkozy was intent on speaking only to French journalists, he could hold it in the French mission to the UN, or the bilateral meeting rooms that France and the other Permanent Five members of the Security Council are given.

            While the protest by heads of state managed to switch Sarkozy's Security Council schedule, the complaints of journalists outside his press conference were ignored. The Spokesperson for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon came down and spoke to the French mission's spokesman, heatedly. Afterwards, the French spokesman said, She does not control the briefing room.

            Inner City Press telephoned a senior official of the UN's Department of Public Information (DPI) and was told that member states can do what they want. A story was recounted, in which a particular member state, a Permanent Five member of the Security Council, prevailed on then Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali to exclude a dissident from entering the UN, even to speak in the third floor venue of the UN Correspondent's Association. At that time, DPI pushed back, saying that UNCA has been open to all journalists and all speakers since the time of Dag Hammarskjold. Sarkozy's speech said "it is up to us to remain true to the values in whose name we are gathered here today."

Nicolas Sarkozy with UN microphone, non-French media not shown

            In his speech to the General Assembly, Sarkozy had said that "France remains loyal to its friends." Inside the briefing, according to an attendee, even French journalists based at the UN but not known as friends of Sarkozy were not called on. Afterwards there was dark talk of the Sarkozy administration cracking down on journalists, at Paris Match and elsewhere, who did not provide positive coverage. Sarkozy's speech said that "against egotism... it is our duty to renew that appeal.. to open our minds," and that "the UN must be strengthened, not weakened."

News analysis: Setting a new precedent under which a country, or perhaps only one of the veto-wielding Permanent Five members of the Security Council, has use the UN's briefing room as a stage for propaganda to journalists chosen based on passport and ideology does not strengthen the UN and the principles behind it, but rather weakens it.

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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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Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540