NATO and the Man Behind the Curtain

Bucharest, Romania - April 3, 2008

So my day began yesterday, on no sleep, in a sterile, heated, white tent on the lawn of the Presidential Palace in Bucharest, Romania (the second largest building in the world, after the Pentagon, according to every Westerner’s best friend on the road, the Lonely Planet guide). Welcome to the NATO media accreditation center! Journalists, leave your integrity at the door! No need to do any critical thinking from this point onwards!

Yes, welcome to the largest ever summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Bucharest Romania. All under the big top. The most impressive circus in town.

I applied for media accreditation days in advance, well ahead of their deadline, but still had to argue with a series of NATO employees for hours that, “yes, I am a legitimate journalist!”

I sat for a few hours with my friend Amy, both of us quite frustrated, watching the clock tick in the accreditation center. As each journalist came up to get their special NATO badges, they were given free fancy NATO gift bags. To give you an idea, here is an itinerary of what was inside each bag:
-1 bottle of fancy Romanian red wine
-1 GB usb stick
-1 metal business card holder
- 1 DVD film “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”
-1 DVD documentary “NATO defense against terrorism”
-1 DVD documentary “NATO’s operations and missions”
-3 tourist guide books for Romania and Bucharest, including “Hot clubs and bars Bucharest”
-2 hardcover Romanian art books
-and probably of least importance to all the journalists here, a notepad

Hell, why write down anything when you can just copy, paste, and regurgitate all the NATO press releases which are neatly dropped off at each of the thousands of work stations in the media center?

Just beside us in the accreditation center, a worker was picking up the garbage left by all the journalists who had hurried away. He was a very sweet man. He spoke with us for a bit in the little English he had. He is a technician in the media center. His salary is 200 Euros per month.

Perhaps this is the story that isn’t being told at the NATO summit. If you walk just 10 minutes away from the Presidential Palace in the center of the city, you get a bit of a clearer picture of the real Romania.

Romania is the one of the most recent member-states of the EU, and one of the poorest. The average salary in the country is 400 Euros per month. When you walk the streets of Bucharest, you see packs of stray dogs, Roma kids playing in rubble, and others sniffing glue in plastic bags. And this is a country which just spent 26.5 million Euros to host this NATO summit.

But if we go back to the media center, those pictures of poverty are a distant reality. The media center is set up in a way that none of the journalists ever have to leave if they don’t want. All of the comforts are right there, from free catered meals, to nice leather couches, and even some real, authentic, live Romanian folk music to boot. I have to admit that I tried the octopus, and it was to die for.

Media center inside the Presidential PalaceMedia center inside the Presidential Palace

To die for… like the 10% of Afghanis who now own cell phones, compared to 2 lines per 1000 people in 2001, before they were saved from themselves. Or the multinationals now showing interest in investing in Afghanistan such as Coca-Cola, Siemens, and Nestle. Yes, I guess these things really are to die for. In fact, to kill for.

So these little gifts that NATO throws to the media are a way of saying, “Hey guys, we scratch your backs, you scratch ours!” It is their way of carefully controlling what kind of message gets out of the summit. I suppose that me being barred entry at first also demonstrates how they control what kind of media comes in as well.

So later on in the afternoon, after giving up the fight with the NATO media people, I left the accreditation tent and took the metro to where the anti-NATO convergence center was set up. As I was showing up, a full police raid was in effect. Hundreds of riot police wearing black ski masks over their faces arresting 54 protestors for doing absolutely nothing. Well, almost nothing. They were planning workshops, film screenings, and a punk concert. Very dangerous stuff. You can read a separate report I did on the police raid here:
http://romania.indymedia.org/en/2008/04/2525.shtml
And some photos here:
http://photos.cmaq.net/v/bucharestnato/

Much later on that evening, all 54 people were released without charges. One Moldovan activist was beaten very badly by police in the face, and had to be hospitalized due to his injuries.

I also got my NATO media accreditation later on that day, after they had decided that I was legitimate enough to be a part of their club.

The last 24 hours has been very strange, brushing shoulders with war profiteers, and being in the same room as Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Stephen Harper. I always wondered if Harper’s eyes look that scary in real life, and yes, they do. Yesterday I was about 10 feet away from George Bush’s motorcade as it swept through the downtown streets. Yup, just a stone’s throw away. It’s funny when these powerful people, some of the most powerful in the world, only exist on your TV sets, and in your newspapers, and then you see them in the flesh. And what makes it worse is when the only people who can really hold these people accountable, to put them on the grill, and to get their quotes out in the media, don’t have anything intelligent to ask at all. It makes your skin crawl. Anyways, I’m happy to say that I’ve only been thrown out of a press conference with Stephen Harper once in my life, not twice.

Now the media center is calm and quiet. Most of the journalists have gone back to their hotels. Amy and I are still working on our radio reports. The streets of Bucharest will most certainly be quiet tonight, as all most of the businesses in the area are shut down. School has been out all week. And of course, no protests against NATO will be allowed.

It’s interesting when you get these rare opportunities to peer behind the curtain, to see the machine behind the big game. A lot of big decisions were made today. France will be sending an additional 700 troops to Afghanistan. Macedonia won’t be joining NATO because Greece is bickering about their name. Croatia will be joining NATO, and becomes yet another country that has to set aside a good chunk of their national budget for military spending.

Lots of decisions, lots of reports, and at the end of the day, the cleaning ladies are just starting their shifts.