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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

U.N. Seeks to Blunt U.S. Attacks

Much of the dirt used to try to implicate Annan emerged not as a result of journalists' digging, said Friedman. On the contrary, ''American journalists are lazy,'' he said. ''People are handing them stuff.''

The United Nations is grappling with ways to revamp its press relations and fend off attacks by Washington launched through U.S. media.

With the world body being buffeted by scandals involving charges of mismanagement, corruption, and nepotism, Secretary General Kofi Annan urged his top communications lieutenants and veteran journalists to figure out new ways to work with hostile U.S. media--even if this meant abandoning years of secrecy and discretion.

''When I travel in the rest of the world they still have a lot of respect and enthusiasm for the U.N.,'' Annan said this month at a meeting here on relations between the institution and the media.

''It's just here really,'' he added, referring to hostile media treatment in the United States.

''We need to look at how open we are with the press'' and find ways of ''preempting them,'' Annan said.

That appeal has sparked some soul searching. U.N. officials and journalists alike said the institution served as scapegoat to its member states and that it excelled at this role because U.N. superiors forbade their communications staff to say anything critical of member states.

Ahmad Fawzi, a former deputy spokesman for the secretary general, recalled that his boss had muzzled him when he wanted to distance the U.N. from a 1993 botched mission in Somalia in which U.S. troops, acting alone, lost 18 men and killed dozens of Somali militia fighters and civilians. The raid later was recaptured in the Hollywood film ''Blackhawk Down''.

The morning after learning about the attack on CNN, Fawzi, now a news and media director in the UN Department of Public Information, asked then-Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali if he could tell the press that the U.N. had no foreknowledge of the attack.

''I begged him to let us say the truth about what had happened, that this was an attack that the U.N. knew nothing about until it went wrong, that it was being coordinated from Tampa Florida by (U.S.) Central Command. And he said no.''

''And I said 'Why not? Why do we always have to be blamed when things go wrong?' And he said, 'because we are here to serve member states. You cannot go out and blame a member state for an operation that went wrong. I forbid you from doing that,'' Fawzi said.

Fawzi recalled Boutros-Ghali once told him that the letters SG--short for secretary general--stood for scapegoat.

Compounding the problem, media typically fail to distinguish between the U.N. bureaucracy and the member governments it serves, thus fuelling a misperception of the institution as a self-governing entity threatening individual countries' sovereignty.

This has been a common theme in certain U.S. media and among special interest groups including fundamentalist Christians, neo-conservatives, isolationists, and libertarians. Yet, Washington is among the most dominant of the U.N.'s member states and enjoys effective veto power over decisions far beyond the formal veto it wields in the pivotal Security Council.

''There is a profound misapprehension of the purpose of the U.N. that feeds into the people who want to destroy it,'' said Richard Hottelet, who has covered the institution since 1960 from within and for U.S.-based National Public Radio.

''The U.N. is not an 'it','' Hottelet said. ''It's a 'they.'' And it's a 'they' that is no better than its members.''

Journalists urged the institution to fling open its doors to the media.

In particular, they urged the U.N. to drop its longstanding policy of not releasing information or comment damaging to its members.

''You have people here who want to destroy the U.N. You have to be able to attack, leak, and counter what is being said about you,'' said Mike Berlin, a journalist who covered the world body from 1967-1988 and now teaches at Boston University.

Take the example of Sudan's strife-torn Darfur region. Washington has denounced events there as genocide yet the U.N. presence on the ground has been limited and ineffective at containing conflict between the government and rebel militias.

The U.N. could have forestalled criticism if its briefings on Darfur ''had told journalists over and over that it's all well that (former U.S. Secretary of State) Colin Powell said it's genocide but where are the American helicopters?'' Berlin said.

Instead, the U.N. has kept diplomatically quiet about the lack of substantive U.S. commitment to resolving the conflict or peacekeeping in the interim, Berlin noted. In consequence, he asked rhetorically, ''whom do people blame for Darfur?''

Joshua Friedman, who covered the U.N. for U.S. newspaper Newsday from 1998-2001, urged the world body to adopt a more uninhibited approach to releasing information, for example restricting only information that might endanger its personnel in the field.

''If this access were given, I don't think Kofi Annan would be in the trouble he's in now,'' Friedman said, referring to recent investigations that ultimately cleared the U.N. chief of wrongdoing in corrupt practices stemming from the now-defunct, oil-for-food programme in Iraq. The effort was put in place by member states led by the United States and Britain, both of which maintained close supervision of its implementation.

Much of the dirt used to try to implicate Annan emerged not as a result of journalists' digging, said Friedman. On the contrary, ''American journalists are lazy,'' he said. ''People are handing them stuff.'' Friedman suggested the U.N. start doing the same.

Other proposed solutions to the U.N.'s media woes have been more administrative and designed to break down barriers not between the bureaucracy and the media but between the secretary general's office and its own communications department.

Fred Eckhard, who will be leaving his post as Annan's spokesman when his boss steps down next year, has circulated a proposal that the spokesman's office ''once and finally be made an integral part of the Secretary General's office.''

''We get our guidance from the Secretary General and the people closest to him and administratively, it seems to only make sense to me that this is where this office belongs,'' he said.

At present, Eckhard's office nestles among news bureaus separated from the secretary general's office by some 30-plus storeys.

Niko Kyriakou


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