Is this a genuine wish, principal position or something third?
By Erol Avdovic
|UN Ban Ki-moon, chatting with WPP's Erol Avdovic|
(Photo: Cia Pak, Scan News 2011)
(Webpublicapress - UN) “Yes, indeed we have invited the secretary-general long time ago to visit us, but he decided to come today to say hello and Happy New Year to the journalists”, says to Webpublicapress, Giampaolo Piolli, Italian journalist and veteran UN correspondent, for daily La Nazione.
Mr. Ban was invited by UNCA (United Nations Correspondents Association), an independent association of accredited UN press to visit working journalists. The idea was to show Mr. Ban -- an open office-plan, so he can get a real picture in which conditions journalists work.
WHO CAN HELP THE U.N. PRESS
Pioli, a newly re-elected third time, one year mandate president of UNCA, says - it was nice from the secretary-general to come down to the second floor of the UN Library, where temporary rooms for accredited press are set up to serve as their temporary offices. The correspondents will be there – until the old UN Secretariat building is renovated. Pioli said by the mid or the end of 2012. The President of UNCA hopes this SG’s visit “could be helpful in a way”.
Under a 1.9-billion-dollar Capital Master Plan (CMP), the old “Cold War” UN Secretariat building is to be renovated and updated for 21st century operations. This ambitious job is to be finished over the next five years.
When the old 39-storied building was finally emptied, in spring 2010 - journalists who covered UN became a part of the mass migration. The U.N. press had to be temporarily moved to the Dag Hammarskjold Library where office space for journalists was done in the same – temporary fashion.
But, ever-since the press core, some 200 working journalists from dozens of countries all over the world, based in UN in New York, settled in this temporary shelter complaints started to flow. Journalists had to run through the dark corridors, underground, through the garage to reach the Security Council – some 10 minutes walk.
UN officials have heard many other complaints on office structure as well: Most common is the lack of privacy, with the highly porous “walls.” There are not anymore professional “secrets,” one can hear from working press at the UN.
“The interviews, which are supposed to be a professional secret until they are published in public domain, even the telephone conversations, are now shared with competitors because the office space is open”, says Dogan Uluc, another veteran UN correspondent for Turkish daily Hurriyet .
THE DAILY PRESS GRUMBLE
Others, complain also publicly, but almost on the daily basis, they grumble among themselves. The UN Correspondents Association has complained about the lack of privacy in the cramped office spaces – “an environment at times smacking of some of the refugee camps run by the UN overseas,” says one of them.
“I am sure that the Secretary General, with the smile on his face heard some of the comments, with some correspondents making a case of the office partition that does not guarantee privacy. They explained, that privacy in our work, with 120 and more media competing every day on this floor is definitely a very important issue,” Pioli says.
UNCA is striving to move back to “old conditions,” to the old UN Secretariat building, to the 3rd and 4th floor, where full (hard) walls were dividing journalists offices.
“I give the excuse that this is the temporary place, where they (UN) did what they can to accommodate us, but there” says Pioli pointing toward the old UN Secretariat building, “should not be such excuses”. He said, “the philosophy that was dominating before the move to the temporary place, that the open space is for journalists -- is absurd”.
The SG spent some 20 minutes on the entire floor, and indeed, exchanged a few words with every working correspondent at the UN press floor that day. Some of them complained, some chatted with Mr. Ban like with an old friend. The secretary-general was cordial as usually.
Some even joked, it was a good idea for Mr. Ban to come himself and congratulate the New 2011 in person, since not all correspondents got the traditional Holiday Card from him. The UN mail distribution was blamed. They are also lost in the new temporary space for the press. The mail, journalists complained daily - is lost or delivered to the wrong address.
FACT FINDING MISSION
While waiting for the official reaction, and SG’s own impressions, how did the “fact finding mission” go, as one Western UN correspondent put it, the visit of Mr. Ki-moon to the press-floor produced some side-effects as well:
“The secretary-general, to his full surprise found that no one of the Korean press was at their offices. And, Koreans have nice and semiprivate offices at the UN. Mr. Ban was even told by other journalists – that Korean UN correspondents are never there,” the same journalist told WPP. “Yet, one of them showed up a little later at his office, obviously, after some phone calls were made, but Ban had left already,” he said.
For a long period of time the UN is conducting its own review to authenticate the work of correspondents and identify those who may not really need space, and give it to the other journalists that show more interest for covering the UN and its New York agencies.
For many years it was a matter of prestige for important world media to have their correspondents at the UN. But, now, during the prolonged period of the global financial crisis, many media outlets are cutting their budgets and some UN bureaus are under the question-mark.
Some UNCA members share a concern that the diverse world of international print, broadcast and online media, could in addition be diminished by some UN action against the press core at the East River.
Last year the UN proposed even to charge rent for the offices of UN correspondents. That has triggered a strong protest from UNCA. Some warned “the worst victims would be developing country journalists who would be particularly disadvantaged, if rents were to be charged." Eventually, the UN realized, to act only on the economic basis, may result in less coverage of the World body.
UNCA President Pioli, wrote a strong letter of protest, in which he pointed, that charging rent “would interfere with intended access for news organizations helping to spread news of the U.N."
Pioli told WPP, the UNCA Board of Directors, last year “put a good amount of fight, and now rent is finally off the table.”
Journalists also dug and found that there was a 1975 General Assembly resolution recognizing their role in UN efforts to make the world a better place: The UN General Assembly pointed out "the contribution of the media in promoting the activities of the United Nations and in mobilizing public support for the Organization."
CHARM OFFENSIVE, OR WHAT
Obviously, secretary-general Ban Ki-moon realized, this – potentially boiling and unnecessary confrontation with the press should be avoided. Neither, does he like to be seen as the first UN secretary-general who is not the Champion of the press. It will be shortsighted to assume, that Ban did not calculate politically as well.
“Secretary General came pleasantly and shook everybody’s hand, and I believe it was the first time one SG came and visited every journalist in every office in my 25 years since I am here,” Pioli told WPP.
“Every U.N. secretary-general since Norway's Trygve Lie back in 1946 believed in the concept of a free press - for journalists covering the United Nations,” said Thalif Deen, UN Bureau chief for Inter Press Service, reminding that Ban wants to prove himself as one of those.
But, there is a legitimate question - on which side Mr. Ban will be? Some journalists from the Third world complained -- the best office spaces are granted to news outlets from P-5, the Permanent Five members of the Security Council: United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.
And, whether Mr. Ban will fully understand the new media-cosmos in which internet and social, citizen and multi-media do have to play a bigger role in covering the UN?
“The secretary-general made one of his rare visits to the press area sheepishly followed by an entourage of senior UN officials. But was the visit triggered by the rash of complaints made by the UN press corps about the unsatisfactory working conditions in its temporary quarters, or was it meant as a charm offensive before he declares his intention to run for a second five year term?” points Thalif Deen for Webpublicapress. “If the secretary-general was convinced that the UN press corps should be treated much better, his visit would not have been in vain,” he added.