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As UN Names Decedent on South Lawn, Push-Back at Photos, Run-Around on Computer Job Specifics

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

UNITED NATIONS, February 19 -- In the aftermath of the death on February 17 of Maria Gabriela Di Biase on the UN's South Lawn, the UN has issued to the press a statement that Ms. Di Biase technically worked for the World Health Organization, not the UN Secretariat, although she maintained the computers on the Secretariat building's 19th floor for ten years. On the UN's Intranet, Under Secretary General for Management Alicia Barcena posted a four-paragraph letter to all staff, saying that "Ms. Di Biase was a staff member of the International Computing Center (ICC), an entity sponsored by the World Health Organization that provides services to the UN system."  Ms. Barcena's letter refers to a "tragic death at UN Headquarters on Sunday," but does not say more than that.

            Sunday evening, Inner City Press published an article with two photographs. The first showed Ms. Di Biase's hand protruding from a blanket placed over her body, as below. In the second, her hands have been covered with bags and tape by the authorities. That day, police sources told Inner City Press that the bags and tape are used when there is a chance of DNA evidence from a struggle being recovered. That is why Inner City Press published the photograph, adding a warning that it might be upsetting to some readers.

            Tuesday, two UN officials criticized to Inner City Press the publication of the photo. Both urged that the photo be removed. From the UN's executive office on the 38th floor, an official called the publication "tasteless" and said that the "staff is angry." But on the 5th floor, the office of the UN Staff Union, no such anger was expressed. In fact, solemn encouragement was given to further look into Maria Di Biase's death, including on the theory that if -- "if" -- she chose to jump out of the 19th floor of the UN, she was not looking for a private and unreported death. Which of these views represents that of UN staff?

Que en paz descanse

            In fairness, the anger at reporting is not only from the 38th floor. Sources at a meeting held Tuesday report that a director-level official known throughout the UN system for having been accused then exonerated of procurement fraud, spoke out about the photos and the publication running them. If in the face of this anger at reporting it needs to be explained again, when a person in their 40s is dead on the UN's South Lawn, it is news to be covered. This is true anywhere in New York City, for example, but the UN seems to think that it is different, that it can choose what is covered and how. That is not the case. At the request of the official from the 38th floor, however, a quote from the Security Council's Sunday emergency meeting in Inner City Press' mid-day Sunday first article on the death, wondering at a connection between the computer worker's death and the lack of e-mail notice of the meeting to the interpreters and to journalists, has been excised.

            Inner City Press on Tuesday asked spokesperson Marie Okabe what arrangement exists between the UN Secretariat, where Ms. Di Biase worked, and the World Health Organization, which Ms. Okabe said signed Ms. Di Biase's paychecks. Inner City Press was directed to ask WHO, which seems strange. But continue to ask we will, including because Net-savvy UN ICC's website draws a blank on "customers and partners," and most other sub-pages, click here to view. To be continued.

  And, que en paz descanse.

(c) Inner City Press 2008, All rights reserved.

These reports are usually also available through Google News and on Lexis-Nexis.

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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