In what was considered as a controversial press conference held by the United Nations Mission in Nepal’s Chief Ian Martin in Kathmandu on March 12, 2008, the UN claimed that its officials did not misbehave with Nepali media persons who took pictures of the Russian MIG helicopter crash in Bethan, Ramechhap, last week that killed 10 people and resulted in the suicide of a Russian flight engineer who lost three of his colleagues in the tragedy. Mr. Ian Martin had personally chartered a helicopter to lead the rescue efforts.
Addressing a press conference at UNMIN headquarters Wednesday, Mr. Martin despite his good personal image, saw himself yet again defending lower rung Nepalese and UN expatriate personnel who not only were known to have misbehaved with Nepali journalists, but even rudely seized a film roll from one of the photographers. The UN for some hidden reason did not want the Nepalese media to take pictures of the helicopter accident sight stating it would violate journalist ethics in talking pictures of dead bodies. Nepali media people walked off more confused on the motives of the press briefing and its implications, than seeking truth behind UNMIN’s recent press incident. There are thousands of pictures published in the worldwide web, not only of UN and international humanitarian staff killed in action in the field but even American soldiers maimed or killed in Iraq.
Mr. Martin did try stating dispassionately that "Freedom of expression should be exercised by the press in accordance with professional ethics, which should govern the decision about what to photograph and film, and what not to," acknowledging later on that UNMIN staff did ask television crews not to film the bodies of the deceased until they were covered, out of respect for the dead and the sensibilities of their families and friends. The UN Mission Chief in Nepal further stated there was no mistreatment, and indeed no UNMIN staff handled the cameras, photographers or cameramen at any time wrongly, which was reported to the contrary by several trustworthy eye witnesses relating their story to prominent Nepalese and Indian media. Media freedom is jealously guarded in Nepal and Nepalese journalists have not even spared the Maoists who have committed some serious atrocities in the past, exposing them in the act.
Mr. Martin also denied that the UNMIN helicopters operated without remaining under the guidelines of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) and did pay its dues. He emphasized,” This is not true. Earlier media reports quoted the CAAN officials that UNMIN helicopters are not controlled by the authority. UNMIN has made clear to the government and to the Civil Aviation Authority that it is willing to pay all relevant fees and charges for services provided, once these are identified as such. We have proposed how these can be identified, so that we can make the appropriate payment as soon as possible." This got many questioning whether UNMIN indeed had a lot of outstanding money to the Nepal Government.
Earlier, it has been reported by various top Indian and Asian media that UNMIN quickly replaced two brand new helicopters for its Nepal mission last year, as soon as they arrived, with two old ones which were ferried in from Sudan under mysterious circumstances. The UNMIN helicopter operates in Nepal without GPS system, flouting the UN’s very own ICAO regulations for VFR low altitude flights. Yet, Mr. Martin stated,” "All UNMIN flights comply fully with Nepalese civil aviation rules and procedures: each and every flight is carried out with the approval of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal. This has always been the case; it was the case with the ill-fated flight; and it continues to be the case. Reports to the contrary were simply false, and potentially very hurtful to family members and colleagues of the deceased." It is alleged that UNMIN has not paid past dues to the Nepalese civil aviation authorities landing its helicopter in make shift sites without prior approval of the Nepal civil aviation. Some are even suspecting Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal(CAAN) members are financially involved in whitewashing these UNMIN flights considered a violation of Nepal’s national security.
The CAAN has formed its usual commission to find out the cause of the chopper crash. In earlier investigations with other cases, it had either blamed the pilot, the aircraft, or else the passenger load, but it has seldom blamed itself in allowing dangerous flights or missions to take place. The helicopter accident occurred, according to reliable Nepalese pilots, in heavy thunder storms, when pilots usually suffer from disorientation. Bethan villagers mentioned seeing lightning strike the helicopter engine, whereupon it struck a stone on a hill, and then plummeted to the ground.. All the bodies were charred beyond recognition UNMIN’s Russian pilots had earlier provided enough adventure with the UN helicopters hovering over Kathmandu. Nepalese journalists had earlier written about their late night drinking adventures in Thamel a day prior to flights carrying UN VIPs from Kathmandu. The UN Civil Service Commission and Staff Association have also called for an inquiry which is highly embarrassing for Mr. Martin. UN choppers were last year reported flying low around the UN Complex in Pulchowk, diverting from their routine flight plans and assigned altitudes, or else taking some of its top brass on sightseeing tours, instead of serving official mission calls. Earlier, in January, UNMIN itself had carried out investigation of the precautionary landing of one of its choppers which nearly crashed; it chose not to broadcast the event.
Similarly Mr. Martin seemed to skirt the constituent assembly elections believing that that all the parties in the polls fray would accept the result of the elections to lead Nepal into a peaceful nation. However, there is again felt need for growing security, and US Ambassador Ms. Nancy J. Powell and British Ambassador Dr. Andrew hall have called on Nepalese Prime Minister Mr. Girija Prasad Koirala separately to inquire. Mr. Martin stated in his press briefing that conflicts in eastern and mid-Terai are still the hindrance to the polls, which have long subsided. However, surprisingly, the UN Human Rights Office in Kathmandu has kept quiet despite the international community’s concern on recent Maoist actions against Rastriya Prajatantra Party and the Rastriya Janshakti Party Chiefs in their campaign trail. While, Mr. Martin sternly stated the international community would have no sympathy with any group which carries out acts of violence in pursuit of its grievances or in attempts to disrupt the electoral process, these remarks were considered light in nature considering serious on-going HR violations already taking place in various campaigning spots where the UNMIN field observers are actually supposed to be, but are not!
Mr. Martin overall assured the specially selected media crew that the Constituent Assembly election is now on track. But to the contrary, Chief Election Commissioner Dr. Bhoj raj Pokhrel has questioned the persisting insecurity in the southern Terai . Mr. Martin also took a second look at the Joint Monitoring Committee feeling that the Nepal Army and the Maoist army must respect the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the arms monitoring agreement. Yet again, there has been no incident between the two in many months, and in fact interact quite well, without UNMIN’s intervention in an atmosphere of total confidence. In fact, the violation that is taking place is largely related to YCL activities against the political cadre of other parties. However UNMIN is known to be highly sympathetic to the Maoists.
Thus, media persons again walked away totally dejected with another outlandish UNMIN briefing full of media holes that seemed to accompany Mr. Martin’s press conference. Some media experts even wondered who had briefed him prior to the event. Mr. Martin also looked visibly upset and nervous during the briefing session. Both the UNMIN and UN Humanitarian Coordination Offices in Kathmandu have come under media fire for working on the sidelines with a few ill-reputed Nepali media houses and journalists in Pulchowk who seem to write in support of UN activities often divulging progress reports and achievement tags that appear not only ludicrous but contrary to the low staff morale existing in these organizations. UN reports often contradict each other, and the press and information officers hired, including a former Bangkok Post columnist working for the UN Humanitarian Coordinator’s office are considered possessing superficial knowledge on Nepalese development, history, culture and electioneering style. Some of the media person felt that if this is how UNMIN would conduct future media soirees, it would be hard luck convincing the UN Security Council and Nepal’s two important neighbors, India and China, on the need for another extension when the time came for one. Even the British might back down in supporting another UN Security Council resolution again. Some senior Nepalese journalists and Asian media representative in Kathamndu have repeatedly ignored UNMIN’s past invitations and boycotted UN House invitations for the past three years, ever since the arrival of Mr. Mathew Kahane, who led the UN downhill in Nepal. Their view is the respective UN organization heads are completely out of touch with the Nepalese political reality or the people’ aspiration to have meaningful democratic change. Yet, Mr. Ban KI-Moon is proposing to come to Nepal to observe the April 10, 2008 elections, in a state of UN unpreparedness and general administrative disarray. Many media representatives were surprised when the new UN chief in Nepal Mr. Robert Piper stated that he would be following the same policies as his predecessor!
PM Koirala on his part has already explained to various foreign envoys who call on him regularly that the government is committed to conducting the CA poll in a free and fair manner, as he did state in his discussion with the American and British envoys recently.
('Dywn' Bishnu Sapkota is a Law Student graduate from TU and works in multimedia communications production and photo media coverage with a prominent Kathmandu companies and internatiional press).
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