Imagine that it's 1997 and the Soviets have occupied the United States for 10 years. UN forces, under Soviet control and looking rather like Darth Vader clones, keep the peace, and they do it in brutal fashion - burning down houses, murdering innocents, committing rape.
That's the backdrop of the 12-hour miniseries ``Amerika,'' which the ABC television network plans to air in February. A lot of people are up in arms over it, not the least of them people at the UN.
In a letter to ABC, UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar called ``Amerika's'' depiction of UN forces a ``travesty,'' saying ``it would harm the memory of the many soldiers who laid down their lives in the cause of world peace.''
He asked that all references to the UN be removed. ABC refused.
```Amerika' is not a documentary,'' says an ABC spokesman. ``It's fiction.''
UN officials are considering a lawsuit on the grounds that ABC used the UN's name and emblem without authorization. Both are protected by international convention and by New York state law, the UN says.
Besides the legal strategy, the UN is also considering producing its own programs that would explain the purpose and accomplishments of UN peacekeeping, UN spokesmen say. In fact, they say that they welcome the chance to promote discussion of the UN's usefulness.
``This is an opportunity to challenge our critics,'' says Yasushi Akashi, head of the UN's Department of Public Information.
In addition, the UN - aware that ABC needs to sell ``Amerika'' abroad to recoup its expenses of more than $30 million - has been making its case to foreign governments.
Donald Wrye, the producer, director, and writer of ``Amerika,'' rejects UN charges that the movie's references to the UN are gratuitous. He says the use of the UN is consistent with other elements of the plot, namely that a ``laudable'' institution had been taken over by the Soviets and distorted. The point, he says, is that Americans didn't act to cherish or preserve it, so they lost it.
``The real UN peacekeeping forces have done an enormous amount of good,'' Mr. Wrye says. ``I don't believe this movie will influence the public negatively about the UN, given the sweep of its history.''
The UN isn't convinced - nor is it alone in its outrage. The Soviets have voiced their displeasure over the way they are depicted. And a number of interest groups are sending petitions to ABC, protesting what they see as right-wing propaganda masquerading as entertainment.
``ABC is perpetuating both the old myth of the UN as a Soviet puppet and the paranoid fantasy of the right wing that the Soviets are going to get us,'' says Jeff Cohen, head of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a mass-media watchdog group. ``We are not censorist; we recognize ABC's right to free speech. Our goal is balance.''
FAIR and other groups, including the UN, are urging ABC to run a panel discussion at the end of at least one episode to spur debate on the show's themes.