Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Should U.N. Chief's Public Pronouncements Be Copyrighted?

By Thalif Deen
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) holds his first press conference of 2011, outlining his priorities for the year. / Credit:UN Photo/Mark Garten
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) holds his first press conference of 2011, outlining his priorities for the year. 
Credit:UN Photo/Mark Garten

When the secretary-general of the United Nations issues a key policy statement, holds a news conference or simply makes off- the-cuff remarks to the press corps, they traditionally remain in the public domain.

But a recent op-ed commentary in an Australian newspaper, authored by Ban Ki-moon, was not only copyrighted but also truncated, thereby omitting a crucial policy decision - the creation of a new U.N. women's agency - from his public pronouncement spelling out the world body's 2011 agenda.

At the bottom of the article, published in the Sydney Morning Herald in late December, was the warning: "Copyright, Project Syndicate, 2010".

The Prague-based outfit is an international not-for-profit newspaper syndicate soliciting articles, analyses and op-ed pieces from a variety of writers, including political thinkers, Nobel laureates, activists and academics - and placing them in newspapers worldwide.

Stephen Lewis, a former deputy executive director of the U.N. children's agency UNICEF, is challenging the new-found exclusiveness of the secretary-general.

"I was sent an e-mail by a senior member of the secretary- general's (SG) staff indicating that something called Project Syndicate had crafted the op-ed taken from a previous speech the SG had given," he said.

Apparently, it wasn't vetted by the SG's office. That's entirely irresponsible, said Lewis.

"You don't allow a private company to fool around with the words of the SG without scrutiny by the SG's staff before publication," he said.

Lewis, a former U.N. special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and currently co-director of the group AIDS-Free World, wondered how a non-profit association of newspapers - really a private company, non-profit or otherwise – managed to hold a copyright on the words of the SG.

Asked to respond, a spokesperson for secretary-general, Farhan Haq, told IPS: "That's just because some op-eds are sent to a syndicated service, which places them in newspapers around the world."

Haq confirmed that the SG's statements "remain in the public domain".

Lewis remained sceptical. "If, however, we were to believe the response given to IPS," he said, "then an op-ed was drafted by the SG's office with no reference to U.N. Women."

That's even more reprehensible, he said. "No matter how you look at this, the U.N. has contracted out the words of the secretary-general of the United Nations as though he was a commonplace blogger."

Something is terribly wrong in the offices of the secretary- general, he added.

In his op-ed piece, Ban stressed the important role the United Nations will play in 2011 and beyond.

"People everywhere live in growing anxiety and fear. There is near-universal loss of trust in institutions and leaders," he wrote.

Amid such uncertainty, he said, "Our future depends on a United Nations that brings together the countries of the world not only to talk and debate, but also to agree and to act; that mobilises civil society, business, philanthropists and ordinary citizens to help the world's governments solve current problems; and that delivers peace, development, human rights, and global public goods - in a word, hope - to people around the world every day."

Although he singled out the U.N.'s past achievements and projected its future role, Ban's commentary left out one of the most positive achievements of the world body: the creation of U.N. Women launched in the new year.

"The conventional wisdom will tell you that the MDG targets - reducing poverty and hunger, improving the health of mothers and children, combating HIV/AIDS, increasing access to education, protecting the environment, and forging a global partnership for development - are simply unattainable," he says.

But those "targets" spelled out in his article do not include gender empowerment and the future role of women in society.

Lewis said: "I see from the Project Syndicate website that they solicit or accept unsolicited op-ed commentaries of 800 to 1000 words in length, but do they have the right to extract sections from other materials [such as speeches] and then present them as though they were an original commentary? That's what they did with the SG."

"We'd love to see the contract between the SG and Project Syndicate. It's one thing to toy with the copy of Jeffrey Sachs or Joe Stiglitz or Jimmy Carter or Naomi Wolfe, but the SG is the chief administrative officer of the United Nations, not of an academic institution or a think-tank," Lewis said.

"And look how embarrassing it can be," added Lewis, currently a distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.

Lewis said the editors of Project Syndicate clearly couldn't have cared less about women, so they simply excised that part of the SG's address. 

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