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For de Mistura's Syria Talks, New Political Officer, Cronies in Place

By Matthew Russell Lee, Exclusive

UNITED NATIONS, May 4 -- When UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura came to the UN Security Council stakeout on April 24, Inner City Press asked him about criticism of how he has run his office to date. De Mistura declined to respond.

  But as de Mistura today starts a new round on consultations in Geneva, with all press coverage Banned, he is belatedly replacing his principal political affairs officer with one Stephanie Koury, Inner City Press is informed, who in Iraq headed the UN's Kirkuk office, as well as a stint in another of the UN's failed (or turned-over) mediation missions, in Yemen, see below.

 Previously, Inner City Press reported on how de Mistura ingratiated himself to Ban Ki-moon by hiring and promoting Ban's son in law Siddharth Chatterjee while serving as envoy in Iraq. (Some of that reported was censored, but not on Inner City Press.) This led to push-back from the UN, which continues to the day - something that the new Free UN Coalition for Access opposes.

  Last week the UN said of de Mistura's upcoming five to six weeks of talks on Syria in Geneva that there will be no interviews or stakeouts, nor even any photo-sprays, during all that time. FUNCA opposes this closing-down of the UN as well.

  A picture has emerged of de Mistura's running of the UN's Syria office, in which "cronies" from his time in Iraq and after that Afghanistan have been favored in jobs, with very little to show for it.

  De Mistura's functional political affairs chief, for example, has been Elpida Rouka, who was de Mistura's "Special Assistant" in Iraq. Her i-Phone composed political memos have been exclusively mocked to Inner City Press by close associates of de Mistura, but de Mistura declared her the only authorized channel of "substantive" information to UN Headquarters in New York.

 At a key moment in de Mistura's doomed push for a "freeze" in Aleppo, Inner City Presss is exclusively informed that de Mistura went with, over ceasefire expert Julian Hottinger, one Matt Waldman, listed as an adviser not only of de Mistura on Syria but also of the European Institute for Peace, which as Inner City Press has reported de Mistura remains president of the Board of Governors.

 (Back in September 2014, Inner City Press asked the UN Office of the Spokesperson, "please confirm or deny that Mr. de Mistura will be (allowed to be) based in Brussels, and separate state his contract status: When Actually Employed? Paid at USG level? Is he being allowed to continue working with / for any non-UN organization, if so which, and what review of possible conflicts of interest was made, and by whom?")

  One might think that the UN's Syria envoy position is or should be a full time job, without outside second positions like continuing as president of the board of a group like the European Institute for Peace. But this is the UN, where the special representative on Cyprus Alexander Downer was allowed to work full time at an investment bank or consultancy Bespoke Approach, Tony Blair as Middle East Quartet representative and businessman, and now a similar UNdisclosed arrangement in Yemen.

(Inner City Press has four times asked simple public financial disclosure questions about Ban's new Yemen envoy Ismael Ould Cheikh Ahmed, without answer.)

  All of the above said, de Mistura is a pleasant man; while in Afghanistan he pledged to get to the bottom of the murder of UN staffer Louis Maxwell there although he never did (nor did others in today's UN).  But Inner City Press - and FUNCA - are committed to a closely-covered and open UN, and the trend, from the top down, is in quite the opposite direction. Here was the UN's "Note to Correspondents" -

The Geneva Consultations on Syria will begin next week Monday, 4 May, at the Palais des Nations and last for an initial period of five to six weeks.

The Special Envoy of the Secretary-General Staffan de Mistura has invited as many of the parties as possible, primarily the Syrian parties (government, opposition and civil society), as well as the regional and international stakeholders, to discuss with the Special Envoy, the dire situation in Syria today and to provide their candid views on where we stand vis-a-vis implementation of the Geneva Communiqué almost three years since it was adopted.

The Special Envoy and the Deputy Special Envoy, Ramzy Ezzeldine Ramzy, will conduct closed and separate consultations with each party.

There will be no photo opportunities, no stakeouts, and no interviews while the consultations are being conducted at the Palais. However, periodic photo and video feeds will be provided by UN Photo and UN Television.

The UNOG Spokesman and Director, a.i., of the UN Information Service in Geneva, and the Office of the Special Envoy's Public Information Officer, will provide periodic updates to the Geneva Press Corps and others, as and when appropriate and necessary.

No major public announcements are expected during, or at the conclusion of, these Consultations. The Special Envoy will assess the progress of his stock-taking at the end of the process and report to the Secretary-General with his findings and recommendations.

Thank you for understanding. 

  Thank you indeed.

 Back on April 24, Inner City Press asked de Mistura if the Saudi-led airstrikes on Yemen changed any of the dynamics on Syria.

  In reply, de Mistura told Inner City Press that "everything in the region these days is connected." He added that he is focused on Syria.

 Inner City Press also asked de Mistura about criticism made by his former adviser Mouin Rabbani on Qatar's Al Jazeera TV, that Mistura is out of his depth and not up for the task.

 De Mistura replied, I will not respond, you would do the same, if one of your ex-colleagues...

  Inner City Press asked the question because it hadn't been asked, tellingly.

 Dina Kawar said Mistura “mentioned what he will do next month in Geneva, holding separate meetings with the Syrian parties, representatives of the civil society and regional and international actors. He will provide his assessment to the Secretary General and keep the Security Council informed,” Kawar said, taking no questions.

  Staffan de Mistura emerged, saying he would take two or three questions. He said, “the only way is to test, a stress test,” a phrase like his previous “freeze.” He said, “by end of June we should be in the position to reassess whether any convergence on substance and report to the Secretary General.”

  De Mistura said, “This is not Geneva Three, this is a series of consultation, one to one. We can convene and ask everyone to come and not exclude anyone.. Iran is a member country of the UN, it is a major play in the region, it has influence in Syria. The UN has the right, and will be inviting everyone.”

  Unlike Montreux, it was observed by... one wag.

  Back on April 16, that the Syrian chemical weapons victim and doctor who briefed the UN Security Council did so behind closed doors, with no UN Television coverage, was a product of the Council's rules.

  It was an “Arria formula” meeting, which was not be listed in the UN Journal or even on the blue electronic signs outside it. (The sign said the meeting was about "nutrition.")

  Afterward chemical weapons victim Qusai Zakarya took some questions in the hall, before again going behind closed doors of the UN Censorship Alliance, see below.

  Inner City Press in this public space asked Qusai Zakarya what he thought of UN envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura.

Qusai Zakarya said replied to Inner City Press, "I think Staffan de Mistura is a hypocrite. I think his very disgusting attempt to shine up the image of the regime is exposed to the Syrian people and to a nlot of members of the international community. His offer on freezes was a joke. If he really cared about saving lives he would have convinced the regime to stop using its fire power. We have a lot of outrage against his attempts, the deal he was trying to offer, it's just another false attempt to shine up the image of the regime."

   Inner City Press asked him if he would meet with any UN official. “I can't answer that questio right now,” he said. Then the convoy went to the clubhouse of the UN Censorship Alliance, which had sent notice only to those who pay it money: "They will have just presented their accounts in front of the UN Security Council at an Arria-formula meeting on Syria Chemical Weapons."

     But why would the doctors, in holding a supposed press conference afterward, not do so in the UN Press Briefing Room on UNTV, as can be done by any NGO or individual as long as sponsored by a member state?

    Instead, the sequel  show was also behind closed door, in the UN Censorship Alliance (UNCA), not on UNTV. This is the same UNCA which hosted former Syrian Coalition head Ahmad al Jarba, allowing him to claim he had a “UN press briefing.”  It is a scam.

  And so on April 24 Inner City Press asked UN spokesman Dujarric if Jarba's successor, after Hadi al Bahra, Khaled Khoja will hold a Q&A session in the open UN Press Briefing Room. We'll see.

    UNCA and its board members have, for example, sought to get other journalists thrown out of the UN, for reporting on the financial relationship of UNCA's then and now president Giampaolo Pioli with an alleged war criminal, accepting rent money from him and later agree to screen his war crimes denial film inside the UN, under the UNCA banner.  If one has a case to make, this is not the place to make it.

  Even since its outright censorship bid, the way UNCA is run gives less and less confidence. On April 10, the UN Spokesperson's Office announced over its public address system that "in a few short moments in the UNCA room there will be a press conference by a State Department official."

   But as Inner City Press immediately reported, it wasn't any "press conference" -- it was off the record spin, typical of this UNCA now known as the UN's Censorship Alliance (the invitation they send to those who pay UNCA money is below.)

  Just before 5 pm, the UN Spokesperson's Office made a second public address system announcement: it was NOT a press conference, but rather an off the record presentation by the US State Department.

  All this in the big room the UN gives to UNCA, its Censorship Alliance. Why is the UN involved in this in any way at all?

  The announcement by UNCA president Giampaolo Pioli, sent only to those who pay UNCA money (then forwarded to Inner City Press along with messages of shock and disgust) said

"For correspondents interested in an informal off-the-record meeting with [the] Deputy Director, Media Hub of the Americas, U.S. Department of State Bureau of Public Affairs, please join us in the UNCA Meeting Room, Friday, April 10th at 3:30pm.

"The meeting will be to explain the work of the State Department Public Affairs bureau that works with international media, to provide assistance in gaining better access to State Department officials and information, in addition to presenting the work done in the Media Hub of the Americas where the Director is the State Department spokesperson in Spanish and Portuguese for regional media and Spain and Portugal.

Thank you,

Giampaolo Pioli
UNCA President"
 Pioli's invite linked to a self-description of this US Bureau of Public Affairs, that “PA/IME works in close collaboration with State Department and interagency colleagues to create and manage tools to ensure accurate coverage of U.S. foreign policy by major international media.”

    UNCA represents only part of the UN press corps. This writer, for example, quit the group after 2012.  UNCA is said by UN Spokesman Stephane Dujarric to receive the first question in the UN Press Briefing Room “by tradition,” even after UNCA's Executive Board tried to get the investigative Press thrown out of the UN for its reporting about Sri Lanka, UN Peacekeeping and colonialism (Herve Ladsous) among other topics.

 UNCA did nothing when Ladsous adopted the policy of refusing to answer any questions from the investigative Press, and having his spokespeople physically grab the UNTV microphone to try to avoid the questions being heard.

  Now UNCA wants to facilitate “accurate coverage of U.S. foreign policy.” Does it perform this service for other countries?

    Inner City Press, like the new Free UN Coalition for Access which it co-founded after quitting UNCA, is not against "accurate coverage of US foreign policy." Last month, Inner City Press asked the US State Department about Yemen (including the decision not to evacuate Yemeni Americans from the country), Cuba (the US restrictions on its diplomats at the UN), the Maldives, Middle East and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In each case, Inner City Press reported the answers in full, where possible with video.

  But why provide this platform for one country and not others? Earlier on April 10 UNCA will have a presentation by a former US CIA employee who served in Saipan, Korea, Vietnam and "Burma," as the UNCA notice puts it.

  What has happened to this UNCA under Pioli and presumably current Executive Committee members from Reuters, the US Broadcast Board of Governors and ANSA? And how now can the UN continue to “partner” with UNCA, exclusively, using this partial group as a proxy for the wider press corps?

 Earlier on April 9, when the UN with little notice canceled its question and answer noon briefing in deference to a "press encounter" with Ban Ki-moon at which Dujarric handpicked the questioners and Ban notably did not call for a halt or even pause in airstrikes on Yemen, UNCA said nothing. (They will, however, have a "Prosecco toast" with Ban later in the month.)

 The Free UN Coalition spoke up in criticism, as here. We'll have more on and of this.


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