At the UN, Plug Is Pulled On Polisario, Access Cut by Khalilzad, Press Freedom's Day's To Come
Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News/Muse
UNITED NATIONS, May 1 -- In the ongoing politics of the UN, and those of the Western Sahara, Monday at the Security Council stakeout a representative of the Polisario Front stood in front of the camera and took questions.
Inner City Press asked him about a statement just made by French Ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sabliere, that the Moroccan autonomy (but not independence) proposal was consistent with the UN-recognized right to self-determination. The response made reference to France's history as a colonial power. And then the recording of the stakeout goes dark.
At Minute 6:10, Inner City Press asks the Polisario's Ahmed Boukhari about France. At Minute 6:18 the screen goes dark.
Tuesday at the noon briefing, Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson said that this had all been an error. But it remained and remains unclear exactly what happened. Sources tell Inner City Press that during the Polisario's brief on-camera stakeout, an order went out, "Cut this off... cut it." While the order was received by UNTV is the basement, where Ban Ki-moon happened to be filming messages for broadcast overseas, and while the order was eventually transmitted to the crew on the second floor by the Security Council, the order did not originate within UNTV.
Now no one wants to say from where the order came. Fingers have been pointed, motive and opportunity have been weighed. The Polisario representative had been present at and around the stakeout throughout Monday morning, speaking to reporters, in full view of UN security and staff. That is how it should be. The Polisario's proposal for talks and a referendum, with independence as a choice, is mentioned in the Security Council's own resolution.
Western Sahara, behind the fence, no camera, "pull the plug"
But even if by some still-not-articulated rule, the Polisario representative was not to have been filmed in front of the Security Council's banner, once the taping started, to cut it off and then mystify how it was done is bush league. It is reminiscent, in its way, to the UN's ham-handed three-week postponement of its exhibition to commemorate the Rwandan genocide, click here for that story. To be sure the UN's side is heard, here's the noon briefing transcript on the issue:
Spokesperson: ...We talked to the Department of Public Information about this. They said that what happened is a mistake, and they’re sorry about it. We also talked to DPA. There was no order from them for anything to be cut off. Apparently, there was confusion about the identity of the speaker. When Mr. Ahmed Boukhari approached the mic, staff did not recognize him and were unable to identify him. The judgement was made that the TV feed should be cut short. And for this, we are sorry. There is no policy of that sort. Of course, Mr. Boukhari had the right to speak at the stakeout. And the majority of his press encounter is now on the website.
Question: But the question that I have for you is that, there were journalists -- myself and others -- who were asking questions. So who made the decision to cut off the feed while questions were being asked? It’s not that somebody was at the stakeout. There was nobody there except UNTV. There’s a difference between cutting something off and cutting something off for a reason. And he was answering my questions and others. And that is the part that upsets me.
Spokesperson: It was a mistake. They took whoever told them to stop it as being someone who was authorized.
Question: Who told them?
Spokesperson: We don't know at this point. We have been trying to find out who said it. We can tell you that no one was authorized to do it. No one.
And yet it happened. In an atmosphere where free speech was more established, one surmises it wouldn't have happened.
Another step backwards this week at the UN is the refusal of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to brief the press about the Security Council's plan of work for May, when the United States holds the presidency. All recent Council presidents have held such press conferences, including the Ambassadors from South Africa, Slovakia, Qatar, Peru and Congo-Brazzaville. At Congo's briefing, Inner City Press asked about press freedom. Nevertheless, the Republic of Congo mission held the press conference. For the U.S., which speaks so often of transparency and freedom of the press, to not even provide the access that Republic of Congo did is surprising. This week the UN is full of events about press freedom. Where things go from here remains to be seen