15 March 2004

Despite critical comments, a U.N. roundtable by a selected number of Arab columnists and editors was a good start. That area had been long neglected since Kofi Annan took over and it was about time -- for the U.N. and its current Secretary-General -- to face the issue rather than count on rosy cosmetic reports by some complacent press officers in the field. The best way to deal with a problem is first to know it existed. Patience, understanding, and enlightened efforts could follow and, hopefully, lead to fruitful results.

The participants were of a good calibre, covering several main media groups like Al-Hayat, Asharq Al Awsat, An-Naher, Al-Safir, Al-Jazira, Al-Rai, including an Iraqi paper. The most senior was Talal Salman, publisher of Al-Safir, the most widely circulating daily in Lebanon, and one of the most effectively critical. It was a pity that he did not get the substantive attention he deserved. Except for functional servicing arrangements, there seemed to be limited personal contact with them other than shaking hands, exchanging general compliments and escorting them from one place to another.

These are experienced, sharp people who had gone through several upheavals in a rough neighbourhood. They are not easily impressed by an invitation to a reception or a whisper by an average clerk who never really worked in the region. They ended up with more questions than answers.

A day before meeting the Secretary-General, a group of them were asked over lunch who of the U.N. officials they met during four days impressed them most. There was a pause as lips upturned, and palms stretched out. As they were leaving Saturday 6 March, most of them gathered over coffee in the hotel lobby awaiting rides to the airport and exchanging impressions. There was no one from their U.N. Department of Public Information, their official host, to bid them farewell. Maybe because it is not in the job description.

Following is a summary of some available comments:

  • Khaled Saghiyeh in Al-Hayat wrote a front page comment under the title: "Kofi Annan Displays to Arab Journalists Elements of Noble Incapacity." While U.N. officials did not hide their desire to have reporters convey "a positive message" to Arab public opinion, Kofi Annan explained elements of his policy, defending the Arab Development report denying that its aim was to undercut the Arabs. The Road Map was in crisis but not dead though its revival required special international efforts, especially by Washington. The writer portrays Annan as balancing one statement with another. Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza was positive; however, he should withdraw from more than Gaza. Annan said he was against the Iraq ware; however, now everyone should unite to help unity and sovereignty of Iraq. While he praised Brahimi report; however he wanted time to digest it. Saghiyeh concluded by recalling a U.S. President who looked for an adviser with only one hand so he would not have to be always reminded of the other.
  • Mounir Khatib in Al Bilad stressed the "powerlessness" or "incapacity" of the Secretary-General, "who makes up for it by listening sympathetically to others."
  • George Hawatmeh, editor of Jordanian "Al-Rai" told an interviewer that there were many questions searching for answers and there was a great need for the U.N. to reach out to the Arab public opinion. He understood what was required of the participants and hoped to do so upon return.
  • Rosanna Boumoncef of An-Nahar Beirut daily wrote a factual report -- with no comment -- highlighting the points made by the Secretary-General, particularly on Iraq and the Palestinian question.
  • Talal Salman lead front page comment in Al Safir started with the sentence: "Kofi Annan was not ready to respond to a naive question whether he had a guilty conscience -- and whether the U.N. could have done more...to prevent the occupation of a founding U.N. member..." He added: "Annan has ready (and planned) answers to justify positions which will be difficult to accept by those who still consider the U.N. as the source of international legitimacy. He had prepared himself well for that meeting with a selected number of journalists who were brought specifically to listen to a comprehensive defense by a number of senior U.N. officials..." Salman, who indicated that decisions were actually taken in Washington, continued that questions went beyond the "person" to the role of the organization in a unipolar world, particularly the role of its current Secretary-General who hailed from Nkrumah's Ghana, moving up the ladder to take over the position some thought would represent the world's Prime Minister, while he personally feels that he is merely a "co-ordinator" of governmental positions, merely supervising the implementation of Security Council decisions.