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Free Press Stifled at United Nations, Reporters Say

By    |   Tuesday, 18 March 2008 07:37 PM

Reporters covering the United Nations complain that the organization, whose Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls for freedom of the press, has been trying to stifle reporters covering the U.N. itself.

This month, for example, U.N. officials reportedly seized videotapes from journalists who recorded the site of a U.N. helicopter crash in Nepal.

In addition, the group Reporters Without Borders says the U.N. yielded to pressure from certain member countries in refusing to recognize "Freedom of Expression Day."

Earlier this year, the U.N. threatened to pull the credentials of Inner City Press reporter Matthew Russell Lee after he reported embarrassing stories about the U.N. Development Program (UNDP). Inner City Press also was delisted from Google News for a time, fueling speculation that the U.N. had played a role in that incident.

Critics of the U.N.'s treatment of the press say these are just a few recent examples of U.N. hostility toward, and intimidation of, journalists who ask questions that U.N. officials don't want to answer.

In recent years, the United Nations has come under fire for corruption scandals, including allegations of bribery in the oil-for-food program, sexual abuse by U.N. relief workers, and, more recently, U.N. money allegedly ending up in North Korea's missile development program.

The press has a harder time holding the U.N. accountable than it does U.S. government agencies because the U.N. has no equivalent to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, Lee told a forum at the conservative Heritage Foundation on Monday.

After media attention was focused on Lee's plight, Google put Inner City Press back on its list, and the U.N. did not pull his credentials. Still, Lee said he would like to see more coverage of the goings-on at the U.N.

"Many of the journalists there are great journalists, but they need access, whether it's to the U.N. high officials or the ambassadors on the Security Council," Lee said. "There is less investigative work. Oil-for-Food, there was some great work done. There are day-to-day misdeeds -- corruption and lack of accountability that doesn't get covered because the journalists there are mostly there to cover the Security Council or Iran sanctions, Gaza and Israel. How the U.N. functions is a wide open field."

Article 19 of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls on governments to promote freedom of the press, said William Davis, director of the United Nations Information Center.

"We live in an imperfect world," said Davis, who spoke at the Heritage gathering in defense of the U.N. "Every year when these principles are put to the test, there are going to be shortcomings from member states and ourselves."

Davis noted that the General Assembly commemorates May 3 of every year as World Press Freedom Day, and he said the U.N. has always been a strong advocate for freedom of the press. But he said accreditation is based on whether a reporter is "formally registered with a media organization in a country recognized by the U.N. General Assembly."

He stressed that the U.N. holds daily news briefings for reporters and puts an abundance of information on its Web site.

However, former Wall Street Journal reporter Claudia Rosett, a journalist-in-residence for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, scoffed at the notion that the U.N. is transparent.

Rosett was one of the leading journalists who helped break the oil-for-food scandal.

"The United Nations Information Center spends well over $100 million per year--much of that your tax money--on what they call public information," Rosett said. "It's important not to confuse that with honesty and frankness and revelatory disclosures to the press. It's largely propaganda. You will find nothing about the real scandals, dirt, and corruption."

Rosett said that when scandals arise at the U.N., there is a propensity to call for an investigation and then turn aside reporters and "not answer questions on the grounds that it's an ongoing investigation."

Often these investigations are not trustworthy because the U.N. is investigating itself and making its own rules, said Beatrice Edwards, international program director for the Government Accountability Project, a watchdog group.

The U.N. has new whistleblower rules, but those often are handled internally, Edwards said.

"If they are subject to retaliation for disclosing fraud or corruption at the U.N., then they would go to a hearing to protest what has happened to them, (but the hearing) is presided over by the institution which they are disclosing perhaps embarrassing information about," Edwards said.

"So they face a forum where the institution itself is both the defendant and the judge. The record of whistleblowers being vindicated or prevailing in these kinds of forums or hearings is very, very poor."

Edwards noted that the U.N., World Bank and other international bodies have diplomatic immunity and are not subject to freedom of information laws.

"If they are able to shut down free press or free speech inside, to the extent that they often try to, then we are really talking about very powerful, very wealthy, lawless organizations," she said.

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Reporters covering the United Nations complain that the organization, whose Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls for freedom of the press, has been trying to stifle reporters covering the U.N. itself. This month, for example, U.N. officials reportedly seized...
Tuesday, 18 March 2008 07:37 PM
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