15 December 2005

"How many light bulbs would it take for a journalist to change the subject?" Kofi Annan asked playfully at the annual awards dinner by U.N. Correspondents Association. One friendly response could be with another question: "How many light bulbs would it take for a spokesman to give a clear answer -- and move on?"

After going through an $80 billion affair, why would a $40,000 car be so difficult to handle? Why make it look like a tug of war between the media and the Spokesman's office when both should be working together to have better, healthier press coverage.

Why should the U.N. Secretary General be dragged along for so long in this farcical absurd story of the Mercedes bought in Geneva -- whether as a present or otherwise -- and shipped to Accra, Ghana? When a legitimate journalistic question was asked; a legitimate convincing answer should have been provided. That's it. Instead, for two months now, questions are being asked regularly with the same kind of response -- which normally provokes further questions. "What about the Mercedes?" has become a standard joke at the daily briefing. A sample goes as follows:

On Monday 21 November:

Question: Just some Mercedes questions. As I can understand the diplomatic process by which you get a diplomatic exemption on customs import duty for a Mercedes into Ghana, you then get diplomatic licence plates. So the question is, did this Mercedes have diplomatic licence plates? And does it still have diplomatic licence plates? Or how did it no longer have diplomatic licence plates?

Deputy Spokesman: I have a very brief statement to make on this subject. I understand Kojo Annan is in touch with the Ghanian authorities about this matter. When they have something to say about this publicly, his lawyer will do so. Further questions will be addressed to his lawyer, and I have nothing further to add.

Question: I appreciate that statement, but the question isn't really a question that involves Kojo Annan. It's a question about the United Nations and whether there's a Mercedes with U.N. diplomatic plates tooling around in Ghana at the moment, and the implication being that if it hits anybody, the U.N. might be liable, for instance, to pay the insurance, etc. So I would like to reiterate my question, and see if I can get an answer to my question about whether this Mercedes had diplomatic plates?

Deputy Spokesman: James, I have nothing further. I just read you a statement. After the statement, I said I have nothing more to add. We do not consider this a U.N. matter.

While other current topics came up, Kojo's question and the Mercedes came up again even while searching for another point in the Volcker report.

Question: There's an annex in the Volcker report, Annex IV of the third volume, the 7 September report, which is an email from Kojo Annan to Michael Wilson. It's the first mention of the Mercedes, but this question doesn't revolve around the Mercedes, it revolves around other things in that email. It seems this paragraph for consultative status, where Kojo Annan seems to be offering advice to Michael Wilson on how to get consultative status for a group called IFIA. As far as I can figure out, it's possibly the International Federation for Inventors Associations. Can you tell us whether the Secretary General's son played any role in getting consultative status for the International Federation for Inventors Associations?

Deputy Spokesman: The Volcker Committee is still in existence. It will be in existence until at least through the end of this year, so if you have any more questions, please direct your questions to the Volcker Committee.

Question: Last time you told us that Volcker wasn't doing any more investigating. Is the U.N. going to investigate the role of Kojo Annan?

Deputy Spokesman: Questions on the Volcker report should be directed to the Volcker Commission. We are not reopening the investigation.

Question: On that same email, it's quite an extensive report in the email of advice given by Diane Mills Aryee?

Deputy Spokesman: We will not be commenting on the Volcker report.

Question: I'm asking about possible wrongdoing by U.N. officials as outlined in the Volcker report, Marie. Now, you've told us that the Volcker Committee was extending its life so it could cooperate with investigating authorities, and the U.N. would investigate as appropriate. So I'm asking about cases where I think it's possibly appropriate for the U.N. to investigate, so this is what I'm asking about, as announced from your podium. So my question, if you'll let me finish it, is in this email, it's a record and report on a conversation Kojo Annan had had with Diane Mills Aryee about the contract process and its advice that Diana Mills Aryee apparently gave to Kojo Annan, which Kojo Annan is passing on to Michael Wilson at Cotecna. Now, given that you explained to us that, in the Stephanides case that even passing publicly available information could be showing preference to somebody in the bidding process, my question is, is Diana Mills Aryee under any kind of investigation for showing partiality to Kojo Annan and Cotecna in the bidding process?

Deputy Spokesman: There were no adverse findings against this person you are talking about, and I have no further comment.

That was just one sample for one day. Last month we reproduced extracts from several days of briefings titled The Theatre of the Absurd, a series of variations on the same theme. A hint that the matter was becoming embarrassingly ridiculous for the Secretariat to be stonewalling passed unnoticed. Let us then be more open. That Mercedes question has by now taken a life of its own. There is no use hiding behind Volcker, his report or his findings. There is no point in saying the issue was not U.N.-related. Insisting that a car that entered Ghana under the name of the U.N. Secretary General was not U.N.-related would be self-defeating. An investigative reporter will keep asking. More refusals to respond will lead to more questioning. The earlier belief two years ago that "only fringe reporters, not mainstream ones" were asking will prove to be mistaken. When the floods opened, even the most accommodating house-accredited reporters joined in. Don't dump the matter on a scapegoated dedicated loyal defenseless staffer and stop there. Just answer the question clearly, firmly and to the best of your ability. Don't corner yourself while believing others are cornered in their own issue. Just do it and move on. Knock. Knock. Who's there? It's the Mercedes from Accra. Knock. Knock. Who's there? Not Kojo -- again!