Meeting United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon face-to-face, shaking his hand and listening to him across the same table, in the same room, was one of my greatest achievements as a journalist at the 2012 Reham Al-Ferra Memorial Journalists Fellowship Program that took place at the UN Headquarters both in New York and Geneva.
Liberian Journalist Danicius Kaihenneh Sengbeh in a warm handshake with UN Chief Ban Ki-moon at the UN headquarters in New York on September 19, 2012
When I started applying for the fellowship in May 2012, little did I know that what I was seeking could open altogether a new chapter in my life, expand my scope of understanding of international affairs (politics, humanitarian, environmental, etc.), take me to the top of the world, and bring me face-to-face with top world leaders and UN officials including Mr. Ban.
The treasured day was September 19, 2012. The door opened. An average-tall South Korean man emerged from an inner office and majestically walked towards a group of queued up journalists. Smiling, I believe deep from his heart, he extended a very warm handshake to each of the 11 journalists (I was one) and their coordinator in the cozy rectangular conference room with large transparent glass windows presenting an extended view of the headquarters of the world’s most powerful non-governmental organization—the United Nations.
After the warm greetings, he moved to a reserved seat in the middle of the rectangular table to make an official welcome statement, before taking two open-ended questions brainstormed by the 11 journalists. Since then, this moment and the soft-spoken words of this man have never left me and may never be forgotten in my life. History has been made!
The average-height Korean man was UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the place was New York at the UN Headquarters and the group of journalists was the 2012 fellows of the Reham Al-Farra Memorial Journalists Fellowship Program.
In life, almost everyone aspires to meet “big” and “important” figures in society, and meeting the UN Chief is no exception. It’s an opportunity that almost any journalist, and by extension citizen in almost any country, would not reject. Such an important meeting, interaction and connection add values and confidence to one’s reputation, and at least that’s how I feel.
When the coordinator of the Reham Al-Ferra Memorial Journalist Fellowship Program (RAF Program, for short), Zvi Muskal, told us that we would meet the Secretary General before the New York’s phase of the program ends, we were all unanimously excited. We couldn’t wait.The day inched on gradually, and we were all in hot readiness.
Everyone had planned to ask a specific questions, question on their minds with respect to the functions of the UN, but with emphasis on their respective countries. however, considering the SG’s tight schedule, especially at the heels of the 67th General Assembly, we had only 15 valuable minutes to be with him. So, all of us decided on two questions, and that paid off well.
A little about Ban. He is the eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations. His priorities have been to mobilize world leaders around a set of new global challenges, from climate change and economic upheaval to pandemics and increasing pressures involving food, energy and water. Ban has sought to be a bridge-builder, to give voice to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, and to strengthen the organization itself.
Born 13 June 1944, (a year before the UN was born) Ban succeeded Kofi Annan in 2007. Before going on to be Secretary-General, Ban was a career diplomat in South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in the United Nations. He entered diplomatic service the year he graduated from university, accepting his first post in New Delhi, India. In the foreign ministry he established a reputation for modesty and competence. These characters could be seen in him as he greeted and addressed us.
Ban was the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea from January 2004 to November 2006. In February 2006, he began to campaign for the office of Secretary-General. He was initially considered to be a long shot for the office. As foreign minister of South Korea, however, he was able to travel to all of the countries that were members of the United Nations Security Council, a maneuver that turned him into the front runner. On 11 October 2006, he was elected to be the eighth Secretary-General. As SG, Ban has led several major reforms regarding peacekeeping and UN employment practices. Diplomatically, Ban has taken particularly strong views on Darfur, where he helped persuade Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to allow peacekeeping troops to enter Sudan; and on global warming, pressing the issue repeatedly with former U.S. President George W. Bush. In 2011, Ban ran unopposed for a second term as Secretary-General. On 21 June 2011, he was unanimously re-elected by the General Assembly and therefore will continue to serve until 31 December 2016.
Like many people in today’s world of underdeveloped and developing countries, Ban did not easily ascend the ladder to sit where he is in New York today. He faced tough times with daunting challenges including war. These challenges and experiences compelled him to pursue a career that would take him at the height of the world’s leadership. “I grew up in war”, the Secretary-General has said, “and saw the United Nations help my country to recover and rebuild. That experience was a big part of what led me to pursue a career in public service. As Secretary-General, I am determined to see this Organization deliver tangible, meaningful results that advance peace, development and human rights,” he is quoted by the UN website as saying.
What he told us?
The UN Chief welcomed us to his office and noted that he was pleased for the second time to receive fellows of the RAF program. He had met the group before us, fellows of the 32nd program.
The RAF fellowship, approved by the General Assembly three decades ago, annually pulls together journalists from developing countries and countries in transition through a competitive application process and educate them on all that the UN is. This year we were 11 fellows from 11 different countries from a pull of over 100 applicants. My 10 colleagues included Katya Poghosyan of Armenia, Peri De Costa Dias of Brazil, Svetoslav Ivanov of Bulgaria, Philemon Ndayizigiye of Burundi, Yaroslava Naumenko of Kazakhstan, Tiwonge Ng’ona of Malawi, Qubul Al Hajri of Saudi Arabia, Sara Peter of Saint Lucia and Bushra Al-Ansi of Yemen.
Held under the auspices of the Department of Public Information (DPI), the program had usually lasted for six weeks in both New York (UN main headquarters) and Washington DC (where the World Bank and IMF stand), but this year took a different turn, climaxing in Geneva, Switzerland, which hosts the largest UN complex in the world.
Ban said he was very pleased that young journalists of our caliber had taken advantage of the opportunity to learn about the UN, and noted that the future is in the hands of the world’s youthful population. Speaking softly, and trying to look each participant in the face, Ban particularly urged us to help to spread the good news about the work of the UN and to also help to make suggestions that could just help to change the world and make it better.
One of the best ways to spread the message of peace and the work of the UN was the use of social media, he said. Social media can be defined as “interactive platforms via which individuals and communities create and share user-generated content”. In other words, social media are social software which mediates human communication. According to research, when the technologies are in place, social media is ubiquitously accessible, and enabled by scalable communication techniques.
In the year 2012, social media has become one of the most powerful sources for news updates through platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Hundreds of millions of people around the world, predominantly youth, spend at least 30 minutes daily on the World Wide Web on social media platforms.
Despite the poor internet penetration in Liberia, thousands of young people including journalists spend spare times exchanging views as well as posting and gathering news and views on social media platforms.Some of them use these networks to discuss travail or important national issues, while others misuse the public forum to lambast and even misrepresent others.
But in his meeting with RAF fellows, Ban called on journalists and young people of the world to properly use social media to communicate peace and development, and ideas that would help positively transform the world. “You are very young, you have age in your favor…and you can work to make the world a better place based on how you communicate…” he stated. “Use social media wisely to share the good news and educate the public.”
The role of the media, he stated, was very important in any society and frowned at any attack against the media. Ban, among several other things, called for the protection of journalists in the discharge of their duties in any part of the world including war and conflict zones.
As he spoke these words, they sat at the deepest part of my mind to be rooted there forever. It’s a story I will tell my children and grandchildren. And when they ask me ‘what did you tell him’, I will say I told him “Thank you for steering the affairs of the UN and for peace in Liberia.” Exactly, that’s what I told him. Writes D. Kaihenneh Sengbeh; Contact: +231 886586531/ firstname.lastname@example.org