Embattled UN Chief on Charm Offensive Says Press Corps

New York City – When an Asian ambassador hosted a sumptuous lunch for more than a dozen U.N. correspondents in his swanky New York apartment many moons ago, he confessed he had a hidden agenda.

“We will soon be in the Security Council,” he told U.N.-based reporters representing Western and Third World publications, “and we would like to have coverage of our activities.”

The envoy added jokingly, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” And one of the correspondents shot back, amidst howls of laughter, “Mr. Ambassador, there is also no such thing as a free press.”

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is reeling under negative reviews in the press, has been hosting a series of lunches, mostly with the mainstream and Western media.

But the free press cannot be bought over with free lunches, says Erol Avdovic, a Bosnian journalist who covers the world body for Radio Deutsche Welle.

In view of the endless stream of negative publicity, he says, the secretary- general is obviously on a “charm offensive” and “damage control.”

“But why only the mainstream and Western media?” asks Avdovic, who also writes for the biggest daily in Sarajevo, Dnevni Avaz.

Saeed Shabazz, who covers the United Nations for the ‘Final Call,’ a newspaper founded in 1979 and published by the Nation of Islam, told IPS the secretary-general is probably not aware of the 1922 ‘Teapot Dome’ scandal (one of the first major bribery scandals during the U.S. presidency of Warren Harding) which was reported by a small newspaper, not the mainstream media.

“I would be surprised if ‘The Final Call’ received an invite,” he said.

Shabazz, one of the few African-American journalists in the U.N. press corps, said “Ban Ki-moon should know that sucking up to the Western media won’t save his job, because reporters prize their sources amongst diplomats more than the secretary-general, as a valuable source.”

At a press briefing Friday, Masood Haider of the Pakistani daily ‘Dawn’ specifically asked U.N. spokesperson Martin Nesirky to confirm a rumour that Ban Ki-moon was, in fact, hosting a select group of journalists for lunch – particularly in view of the fact the secretary-general was reported to be on vacation.

A testy Nesirky responded: “No, he hasn’t been taking them out to lunch. He has invited some journalists to lunch. Do you have a problem with that?”

Haider: “No, I don’t have a problem. For my own information I just wanted to verify if it was true and not a rumour. That’s all.”

“I am choosing my words carefully here”, Nesirky continued. “The secretary- general is in town. The secretary-general is working, as usual, on all manner of topics, and he makes it his business to meet with a whole range of people in different ways.”

That can include having lunches with people, Nesirky said. “Not just journalists, but with all kinds of people to get to know them better.”

Avdovic told IPS that “it is nice the secretary-general is inviting journalists for lunches, but lunches are off-the-record.”

“Only interviews are on-the-record, and they could help to put more light on the thinking of this secretary-general, who, somehow, after almost three years is still a mystery to many of us,” says Avdovic, who points out he has been unsuccessfully seeking an interview with Ban for many months now.

“We do not have straight answers to many straight questions that we put to him,” Avdovic added. At Friday’s briefing, Avdovic asked Nesirky: “What are the criteria that the secretary-general is using when he is inviting journalists for lunches? And who are these journalists?”

Nesirky: “I get all kinds of questions in this briefing room. And I’ll answer any question. That’s my job… But it strikes me as a little off for you to be worried about who the secretary-general has lunch with. If it’s a question of why you weren’t invited, for example?”

To which, Avdovic responded: “I would prefer an interview with the secretary- general rather than lunch.”

U.N. staffers, Avdovic told IPS, may have to sing for their suppers, but journalists don’t have to.

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