Tags: un | mugabe | web | sites

U.N. Media Battle Continues

Thursday, 02 Oct 2008 09:16 PM

By Stewart Stogel

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UNITED NATIONS -- The wacky world of United Nations press coverage has taken several strange turns in recent days. The 2008 General Assembly will be remembered more for what took place off-stage, rather than on-stage.

No Hugo Chavez dancing about calling President Bush "the devil."

No proclamations from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declaring the state of Israel "dead."

What is the talk among the diplomatic corps, was last week's visit by Zimbabwe's embattled President Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe drew eyes not because of his rambling diatribe against the West, which has slapped his government with crushing economic and political sanctions. The father of modern Zimbabwe drew attention by an interview he conducted after his General Assembly address.

The African leader decided to do a wide-ranging video interview with a little-known Web site, iCastnews.com. As to why Mugabe chose iCastnews after refusing requests from ABC, BBC, Fox and CNN is still not clear. The interview, which lasted almost 45 minutes, drew what many have labeled a "media riot" just outside the small iCastnews studio in the U.N. Secretariat tower.

"I was not prepared for that crowd," Zimbabwe's U.N. ambassador, Boniface Chidyausiku, confessed to Newsmax.

Even stranger had been ongoing "discussions" between iCastnews and the U.N.'s Department of Public Information (DPI), which manages media accommodations inside the world body's NYC headquarters.

Those discussions, according to documents shown to Newsmax, lasted almost a year and involved the UN's efforts to evict iCastnews from the New York City compound for reasons not entirely clear.

iCastnews had been operating with little attention inside U.N. headquarters for more than two years.

What is clear is that the U.N. suspended its eviction proceedings when confronted by an attorney for the fledgling Web site.

Since then, according to S.J. Casella, the president and founder of the Web site, there has been a series of meetings trying to determine the ground rules for a long-term presence at the U.N.

The U.N., says Casella, has only issued a grounds ID pass for six months.

Most in-house journalists at the U.N. receive accreditation for a year.

Of more immediate concern for Casella was the U.N.'s reaction to the recent Mugabe interview.

Last Friday, a day after the Mugabe visit, iCastnews was visited by representatives of the U.N.'s security and safety service, who declared that the small red carpet that had been rolled out just prior to Mugabe's visit violated safety rules. Casella was told "not to do it again," and a follow-up "inspection" would take place in two weeks.

When asked about the latest turn of events, U.N. spokeswoman Michelle Montas would only repeat the warning delivered by U.N. security.

Zimbabwe's Chidyausiku, seemingly irritated by the U.N. action, asked, "Where is such a rule? I would like to see it."

The diplomat also pointed out that the iCastnews studio was visited by security officers from the U.N., U.S. and Zimbabwe more than an hour before Mugabe's arrival.

"Nobody told me of any problems," confessed the ambassador.

He, like Casella thought that ulterior motives may be behind the warning:

"Maybe they (the U.N.) did not like Ban (Ki-moon) being overshadowed by Mugabe," he speculated.

The ambassador did tell Newsmax he intended to find out what was going on.

Several requests to Montas for a more complete explanation of the warning to iCastnews were not responded to.

The moves against the Web site mirror problems for another young Internet site at the U.N., Innercitypress.com.

Started a little over two years ago, the site, founded by a people's advocate attorney turned "investigative" blogger, Matthew Lee, has also seen movement by the U.N. to silence him.

Innercitypress has developed a small, but influential readership inside the U.N. community for its reporting of and release of numerous documents detailing waste and corruption inside the world body.

It has reported on money skimming in U.N. operations in North Korea and controversial no-bid contracts for the U.N. relief operations in Darfur.

The U.N.'s DPI reaction was to "review" whether Lee, "a blogger," was by definition a "true" journalist and entitled to a journalist's "protection."

The U.N. backed off when confronted by complaints from other accredited journalists.

But earlier this year, Google informed Lee that they had done their own "review" of his Web site.

Lee was informed that his Web site would be removed from any further news searches performed by Google.

Coincidentally, a senior Google official had recently attended a U.N. symposium at the New York City headquarters.

Lee explained that without the Google, the exposure his Web site could expect would decrease markedly.

He also made it clear that U.N. management was "fully aware" of these issues.

Eventually, Google reviewed its "review" and reinstated Innercitypress in its search engine.

U.S. spokesman Ric Grenell recently told Newsmax that the State Department was aware of the ongoing problems at the U.N.

"We believe that everyone has a right to be heard," said Grenell. He added,"this is not only our position but that of the White House as well."

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