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On Ukraine, UN Restricts Torture Report to Swiss-based Media

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, November 27 -- The UN is scheduled to publicly release a report about human rights and torture in Ukraine on November 28. So far this week, it has restricted pre-distribution of the report to media that can afford to have a Swiss-based correspondent. Why?

   The November 24 announcement said only the "UNOG-based press corp" will get embargoed copies of this:

"UKRAINE:  Slow investigations, lack of accountability regarding excessive use of force by police in connection with protests since November 2013; reports of torture, ill-treatment, enforced disappearances, killings in areas under control of armed groups, notably in Donetsk and Lugansk regions; high rate of mortality among prisoners, mainly from tuberculosis; increase in the number of deaths and suicides in custody; high rate of domestic violence."

    Inner City Press on behalf of the Free UN Coalition for Access immediately challenged this restricted distribution. First Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's spokesman in New York, and now the UN in Geneva have refused to lift the restriction, without substantive explanation. On November 27, Inner City Press and FUNCA asked:

"Now on the eve of the press conference, reiterating the request below, that embargoed copies not be needlessly restricted only to "UNOG-based" press... But the media that have reporters based in UNOG are larger, more corporate media. So that particular embargoed report should be released to all UN system accredited media, not only those with reporters based at UNOG. The Free UN Coalition for Access says that should go the other way, too -- embargoed UN reports should not be restricted to NY / UNHQ based media either."

On November 27, the UN in Geneva via Liz Throssell Media Officer for the UN Treaty Bodies, replied:

"Dear Matthew, The six-hour time difference is very much in your favour, and unlike the journalists here you will have an entire working day to report on the Committee against Torture's 'Concluding Observations' on the eight countries they have been reviewing this session. These will be posted online at around 8:00 a.m. New York Time -- you will be able to find whichever ones that interest you by scrolling down through the countries listed here."

 But this is not responsive. As Inner City Press and FUNCA have replied, "the request is that you not arbitrarily limit embargoed copies only to your 'UNOG-based press corps.' They will be able to publish stories at the embargo time, while despite your message, others will not."

   The UN's Throssell replied again:

"Dear Matthew, The story is a Geneva dateline. The Treaty Bodies meet in Geneva and hold their press conferences here, hence when we are able to give embargoed copies, often at short notice, it is standard practice that it should be to journalists based here. The concluding observations will be available on our website from around 8am your time. It is also important to note that the committee's session was not about one country but eight, and that the interests of the UNOG press corps are similarly not limited to one country.  You speak of the larger more corporate media in the UNOG Press Corps, but, as Stephane [Dujarric, Ban Ki-moon's spokesman] pointed out, there is a large number of freelancers here, working for a variety of English language and other language media."

  Note that the UN, at least in New York, has stated that it does not accredit freelancers.  Again: Why limited pre-distribution of this report to the media which can afford to have a Switzerland-based correspondent, or "freelancer"? What is wrong with the UN? And what will be the effect, like with the murky "gray lady" system at the UN in New York, be of this pre-spinning? Click here for Inner City Press and FUNCA's coverage of the opaque race to head the UN Department of Public Information, here. The UN must do better.

 Back on Novmber 12 in the Ukraine meeting of the UN Security Council,  UN Assistant Secretary General Jens Toyberg-Frandzen said, among other things, that "on November 5, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk announced that pensions would be halted to areas under rebel control."

  Inner City Press asked, in a November 12 story and at the November 13 UN noon briefing, isn't the halting of pensions to rebel held areas by the government in Kyiv a form of collective punishment?

  Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's Office of the Spokesperson did not offer any substantive response -- but later, as we will explain, there would be selective background spin on the eve of the UN's release of its "new" report on Ukraine.

  The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva issued the report and a press release on November 20. Among many problems with the report, on this issue it does not mention Yatsenyuk or the role of Kyiv in suspending pensions, even the heading "Right to social security."

  Nor is Yatsenyuk's and Kyiv's role mentioned in the OHCHR press release, despites its statement that "Severe curtailment of the economic, social and cultural rights of people in Ukraine is also of grave concern."

  The OHCHR press release quotes the new (September 1) head of the office, Prince Zeid of Jordan, who has yet to say anything publicly about a mounting scandal of leaked cables depicting two high employees of the Office, one still there, servicing Morocco on the Western Sahara issue.

  But the Ukraine report is not primarily under Zeid's supervision within the Office. Does he know how its spin works, or doesn't, in New York? Inner City Press has put into a question on deadline on precisely this: watch this site.

 On November 12, while the UN spoke about the death of children on a playground on Donetsk on November 5, they didn't say who did it. Russia's Deputy Permanent Representative Pankin said it was Ukraine's army. Later he stated that an adviser to Poroshenko said on October 24 that "the ceasefire is going to work in our favor, tank factories working around the clock."

  Ukraine's Sergeyev mentioned this in his reply, neither confirming nor denying the quote. The meeting ended; Sergeyev headed up the escalator to be interviewed by scribes. And so it goes at the UN.

  Last month, Ukraine was scheduled to speak at the UN about its “Committee on Information” on October 21, but as UN speeches usually go longer than allowed, its turn was postponed until October 22.

That didn't stop the “UN Radio” Russian service from reporting on the speech on October 21 as if it had in fact been given that day. As translated, UN Radio on October 21 reported

The representative of Ukraine accused Russia of using the information strategy of the Cold War

One of the main prerequisites of violence in Ukraine became a propaganda information. This was stated by the representative of the Mission of Ukraine to the United Nations, speaking at a meeting of the Fourth Committee of the UN General Assembly.”

  The UN's Fourth Committee did meet on October 21 - but Ukraine didn't speak. Instead it was the first speaker on the afternoon of October 22. Its speech, delivered in perfect French including the word “rigolo,” linked Russia to Joseph Goebbels.

  In reply, the Russian mission's spokesman brought up the recent Human Rights Watch report of the Ukrainian government using cluster bombs in and against Donetsk, and the lack of clarity on who called the snipers shots in Maidan Square.

  Later in the Fourth Committee meeting, Bolivia slammed “powers” who use information technology to intervene and violate privacy, bringing to mind USAID's “Cuban Twitter” and, of course, the NSA.

  Then Jordan said it was first among Arab nations to enact an Access to Information law, in 2007. The Free UN Coalition for Access has been pressing for a Freedom of Information Act at the UN, click here and here for that.

  FUNCA covers the Fourth Committee, including on Decolonization, and the Committee on Information, where at least theoretically the UN's descent into censorship could be raised and resolved. The old UN Correspondents Association, a part of this trend toward privatization of briefings and even censorship -- ordering Press articles off the Internet, getting leaked copies of their complaints to the UN's MALU banned from Google's search, here -- was nowhere to be seen. We'll have more on this.


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