Surprise: The UN is Against Press Freedom

Is the UN practicing what it preaches by encouraging a free press?

The answer is no, according to journalists Matthew Russell Lee, who covers the UN’s Development Program, and Claudia Rosett, who broke the UN’s Oil-for-Food scandal.

“People who become too irritating to them lose access,” Rosett said at Heritage on Monday.

Lee is one example. He has covered UN corruption and controversy for the online publication Inner City Press. The UN reaction has been to try and get Lee and Inner City Press’s accreditation removed. 

“If it were the other side of First Avenue, and elsewhere in New York City or the United States, they would know that they can’t condition accreditation on liking the content of somebody’s articles,” Lee said.

One UN senior official asked him how he should be punished for writing a story on a fatal fall from the UN by a woman that may have been a suicide. And recently, Lee had another story on the UN de-listed from Google, which is close to the UN, for an undisclosed complaint. The story told about an abuse of power by a “Uganda disarmament program” funded by UN money. (As Lee put it, “the way they were disarming them was to say ‘come out with your guns, or we’ll burn your village down.’”)

While Lee acknowledges the public does not know for sure whether it was the UN who sent in the complaint, for being one of about 3 million complaints Google receives daily, it “got to the top of their complaint list very quickly,” said Beatrice Edwards, International Program Director for the Government Accountability Project.

“We had the feeling from the way this complaint was handled that the complainant was someone or some institution that had a lot of clout with Google,” Edwards said. “For us it seemed extremely disturbing, because it demonstrated how fragile freedom of the press, freedom of speech, can be.”

Edwards pointed out the UN is not subject to freedom of information laws, impartial whistleblower protection or judicial proceedings in any country. She said this kind of environment creates “very powerful, very wealthy, lawless organizations” if the organization can shut down the press.

Rosett said the UN often tells the press what they’re asking is “sensitive” information for the country or countries in question. When that or a threat about accreditation fails, the UN opens up an investigation and tells the press it can’t ask any questions at all.

“I’ve learned whenever the ‘sensitivities’ of the member states are evoked, you’ve probably struck dirt.” For example, she said, “state-member sensitivities” was all the answer she got when she asked the UN why North Korea wasn’t being audited.

William Davis, DC’s Director of the UN Information Center, inadvertently made some interesting points during the discussion. For example, he said accreditation at the UN depends on very strict criteria – including being a member nation, which he acknowledges excludes certain countries with views “very different from those of some of the member countries” (for instance, Taiwan and Kosovo).

Davis said the UN must make sure as much as any other organization that they are dealing with “credible people” whose plans are not to “undermine the day-to-day workings.”

“Of course, we live in an imperfect world,” Davis said. “And every year when these principles are put to the test, there are going to be shortcomings, both amongst our member states and ourselves.”

Rosett responded to this that there is a level of imperfection at the UN that cause for worry. She suggested the UN needs to be accountable to an outside source – perhaps to someone in the U.S. government.