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As Sri Lanka Cracked Down on Press, UN Said Nothing, Now Congratulates Itself

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

UNITED NATIONS, May 1, updated -- While the plights in Sri Lanka of civilians and non-governmental organization seeking to serve them were confined Thursday night to a informal closed door meeting in the UN basement, Friday the lack of free press access in the country was a matter of heated debate in the river-view Delegates' Dining Room. UNESCO, which has otherwise said little about Sri Lanka's crackdown on the press, gave an award to slain newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. From his widow came a blistering critique of Mahinda Rajapaksa's barring of reporters from Northern Sri Lanka, and the killing of 16 media professionals since November 2005.

   Surreally, two UN officials then praised themselves for the UN's offer of training to journalists in such countries as Iraq. Staffan de Mistura, the UN's envoy in Baghdad, condemned the reporter who threw his shoes at George W. Bush. Inner City Press asked him and his follow UN panelist Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression to explain what UN Country Teams are supposed to be doing, given Sri Lanka Resident Coordinator Neil Buhne's silence while staff were arrested and detained, journalists barred and killed.

  Moderator Barbara Crossette, formerly of the New York Times and now a consultant to UNA-USA, said, "let's make the questions go beyond Sri Lanka" into "what the UN does proactively."  Mr. de Mistura said, "without going into Sri Lanka in particular," that the UN in Iraq had "complicity" with the local media in a "campaign of constructive embarrassment" in furtherance of fast elections. This of source was a foreign policy goal of the United States, in a way that criticism of Sri Lanka's crackdown on the press and UN staff does not appear to be.

  Frank La Rue, despite being the UN system's expert on press freedom, said "I'm not going to comment on what County Offices have not done, I'm not involved in that work." Who is, then?

UN's Ban and de Mistura, forceful talk on Sri Lanka not shown

   Inner City Press, after asking its questions, had urged that time be made for a response from the Sri Lankan government's representative at the event, First Secretary Muditha Halliyadde. Mrs. Halliyadde has been present at each press stakeout in the basement, as her Ambassador Palihakkara has spoken. Friday she joked with Inner City Press, your writing is good if one sided, you make us work until two or three in the morning. Her response, however, was no laughing matter.

  Mrs. Halliyadde said that no one is being detained in the IDP camps, it's just that they can't return were terrorists are. But the conflict zone is now less than ten square kilometers. She said that press has access to the conflict zone, and cited a broadcast by Al Jazeera. Inner City Press saw that report, in which Al Jazeera English correspondent David Chater was given access by the Sri Lankan Navy to cruise along the shore of the conflict zone. Seemingly in exchange for the access, the interviews he conducted said very little about the government's shelling or detention practices.

  Mrs. Halliyadde said that "Ambassador Nambiar and Sir John Holmes" have visited Sri Lanka and everything is essentially going well. Mr. La Rue countered that he had been barred from the country. But why hadn't he said this before?

  The event ended with another question being directed to the representative of Sri Lanka, but the UNESCO moderator essentially ignoring it. The World Press Freedom Day event was over, the baby frisse salad, Moroccan chicken with tomato confit and cheese cake with apricot puree had been eaten, and the UN went on to congratulate itself further. Write nicely about me, Mrs. Halliyadde asked. About her, perhaps. But detentions and shelling by the government, and silence by the UN, is hard to praise. Watch this site.

On March 18, Inner City Press on Wednesday asked Nicholas Burnett, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO, why his agency, while condemn crackdowns on the press in the Philippines and elsewhere has said nothing about the newspaper editors locked up during the current conflict, and journalists previously killed. Mr. Burnett said, I can get you an answer. Video here, from Minute 18:36.  Three hours later his spokesperson asked Inner City Press to email the questions, which was done:

As I asked at the briefing earlier today, what has UNESCO had to say about the recent imprisonment of two journalists in Sri Lanka, on which RSF is requesting UN action

  This is a specific request, also, for comment on 1) the killing of a journalist described at

and 2) on the comments which the Sri Lankan President’s brother, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa made about Vithyatharan in an interview for ... Australia's Special Broadcasting Service (SBS). “He is involved in the recent air attack and I am telling you if you try to give cover-up for that person you have blood in your hands,” Rajapaksa said. “And if someone says he is arrested because he is in media, that person also has blood on his hands.”

  Forty two days later, UNESCO has not answered the questions.

 Click here for an Inner City Press YouTube channel video, mostly UN Headquarters footage, about civilian deaths in Sri Lanka.

Click here for Inner City Press' March 27 UN debate

Click here for Inner City Press March 12 UN (and AIG bailout) debate

Click here for Inner City Press' Feb 26 UN debate

Click here for Feb. 12 debate on Sri Lanka

Click here for Inner City Press' Jan. 16, 2009 debate about Gaza

Click here for Inner City Press' review-of-2008 UN Top Ten debate

Click here for Inner City Press' December 24 debate on UN budget, Niger

Click here from Inner City Press' December 12 debate on UN double standards

Click here for Inner City Press' November 25 debate on Somalia, politics

and this October 17 debate, on Security Council and Obama and the UN.

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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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