Wednesday, June 3, 2009

UN's Critique of the Press Dissected, Sri Lanka-Style Crackdown in the Bud?

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: Media Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, June 2 -- In an extraordinary four minute harangue from the bully pulpit of the UN's media briefing room, the spokesperson for Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Michele Montas bemoaned that the independent Press does not obey her and adopt a "different approach, that the UN is not able to impose its genteel definition of journalism and ethics on those who report on its operations, and that anyone dare ask for an accounting of her and other senior UN official's views on and meetings related to crackdown on the Press. Video here, from Minute 14:33 to Minute 18:41.

   As Ms. Montas, apparently with the approval of the three of Mr. Ban's Under Secretaries General to whom Inner City Press e-mailed questions about their May 8 meeting which recommended legal action against three media organizations but who did not respond, chose to make her critique in public, on the UN's own in-house television channel on which she would brook no interruption, what follows is atranscript annotated with the underlying context. It began, as Inner City Press has been asking at every day's noon briefing since January of this year, with a question about Sri Lanka and the UN (click here for NY Times debate)

Inner City Press: Michele, two questions. One is that the Government of Sri Lanka has expelled the head of the Norway-based NGO, Forut, from the country. Does the UN have any response to that as it did in say, Darfur?

Spokesperson Montas: No, not at this point. Not at this point, at all.

Inner City Press: Okay. The other question is, one, I e-mailed you, but I’m compelled to ask it. Whether you participated in an 8 May meeting with Ms. Angela Kane and certain others about how the UN would have a legal strategy on the Wall Street Journal, Fox News and Inner City Press, including seeking to de-list it from Google News?

Spokesperson Montas: Okay, Matthew, I just want to point out that I don’t have to account to you about the meetings I participate in. I participate in about seven meetings a day, okay. I don’t have any accounts to give you about what was discussed in a specific meeting that was held here at UN Headquarters!

Inner City Press: I have seen the minutes, but I guess my question to you is simply, before writing the article, how was the content of that meeting consistent with Article 19 and the First Amendment and what Mr. Ban said on 7 May about freedom of the press and of online media?

Ms. Montas and UN"s Ban- does he know? - please, no questions

Spokesperson: Those were discussions based on people who actually complained about things that you wrote about. I am talking about what you wrote concerning particularly the Medical Service where you really touched upon people’s reputations without any proof!

Annotation: The UN Medical Service story to which Ms. Montas referred in fact contained ample proof, including a photograph of the log book in which employees at the Medical Service signed out narcotics to themselves. Three weeks after Inner City Press ran the story, the UN's first request was that the photograph be taken off line. Inner City Press immediately granted this request to remove the evidence, or "proof," from the public domain, at the UN's request. Now Ms. Montas claims there is no proof.

Later on June 2, Inner City Press and two other media organization spoke in the hall -- see below -- with USG Angela Kane of the Department of Management, which oversees the Medical Service. In a discussion that all three reporters agreed was not off the record, as Ms. Kane never made any such request, Ms. Kane said that a total of two staff members had complained, about the photograph, which Ms. Kane stated she had not seen.

One reporter, incredulous, asked her to justify her statement in a May 21 press conference that the Office of Internal Oversight Services had clearer the Medical Service. She acknowledged that OIOS had, as was stated in the written response that Inner City Press received and put online, been blocked by lack of access to putatively confidential information. 

  She claimed that after Inner City Press published the OIOS statement, less than two weeks ago and after her statement that the Service had been clearer, OIOS was granted access to previously confidential information. Then, she said, the Medical Service was clearer. But why did she announce the results before the investigation had been done?

Spokesperson Montas: And I want to underline the fact that whenever we have sent to you or other media, some other media -– very few of them, we have sent rectification saying this is untrue; this is what the truth is. You don’t bother to print that.

Annotation: This is patently untrue. In the case of the Medical Service story, the UN provided no response until after Ms. Kane's press conference, and when it did, Inner City Press immediately published the UN's statement. Even Ms. Kane acknowledged that Inner City Press took down the photograph of the log book -- the proof -- as soon as the UN requested in, on a Saturday morning.

  Ms. Montas' public criticism cannot be substantiated. In fact, it is her office which, as Inner City Press specifies in week in review articles, refuses to answer question even when they are posed publicly in the UN's noon briefing. See e.g., May 10 2009,May 2, 2009earlier 2009.

Inner City Press: OIOS sent me something from Ms. Ahlenius that said that they couldn’t verify the claims against the Medical Service because of confidentiality. But Ms. Kane, here in this room, said that the Medical Service was cleared, which isn’t even what Ms. Ahlenius said. So, I did run it, I am always happy to run it, but I guess, I don’t want to dominate this…

Spokesperson: That has nothing to do with this. The fact that we get together, any staff member, any senior adviser here, get together in a meeting and discuss some specific claim, some specific allegation in some press report, in some media, about people whose lives are affected by media, and where issues of libel are discussed, I think it’s something that is [inaudible].

Annotation: It is interesting that Ms. Montas refers to the possibility of a libel suit by the UN, which itself claims that it cannot be sued. As exclusively reported by Inner City Press, earlier this year a UN staff member had a fatal stroke in the basement of Headquarters and waited an hour for an ambulance due to the failure of the UN's systems for alerting NYC emergency services. 

While his survivors expressed a desire to sue, it is the UN's position that it is immune. Now the UN speaks of libel. As an aside, Inner City Press was informed later on June 2 by staff in the unit where the man died that since Inner City Press' coverage, and because of it, they are now allowed to call 911 and not only the UN where there is an emergency.

Inner City Press: [Since the minutes indicate] that the UN is seeking to complain to Google News and to have Inner City Press removed, does that confirm that previously when Inner City Press was removed that the UN was behind it?

Spokesperson: The UN had nothing to do with it.

Annotation: Even if that were true, at the time when Inner City Press was, based on anonymous complaint, removed from Google News for one week, Inner City Press was told that the UN would never make such a complaint, to stop implying that publicly, it could never come from the UN. Now three UN Under Secretaries General discuss precisely this, without objection. Did they do it in the past, or has the UN gotten even more opposed to press freedom in the past year?

Inner City Press: But this time the goal is to complain --

Spokesperson: Nothing was decided. Absolutely nothing. Things were discussed because of the fact that a number of allegations that you have printed are erroneous, do not respect the facts, and…

Annotation: the only example given by Ms. Montas was the Medical Service story, which Inner City Press stands behind. For the UN to use the bully pulpit of its media briefing room to harangue a reporter for unspecified errors is itself abusive. Ms. Montas has done it before, when questioned about the Ban administration's stealth hiring practices.

 Several close observers have concluded that the vehemence of the June 2 denunciation or attempt to intimidate, including as planned on May 8 and subsequently leaked, is related to Inner City Press' critical coverage of the UN's non-action against civilian death and internment in Sri Lanka, including the UN's withholding of casualty figures and satellite photographs.

Question: [inaudible] confirmed this.

Spokesperson: …and it’s…

Question: Fox News ran the same story [inaudible].

Spokesperson: May I finish, please?

Correspondent: I’m sorry, please.

Spokesperson: Not only you do not respect the facts, and I think some of your colleagues agree with me on this… not only you do not respect the facts, you do not respect when we actually call you, call upon you and we send a rectification. The third aspect of it all is that, whenever I speak to you or anybody else speaks to you, what we have is not a different approach, no! It is “I met so and so in the hallway”, and that’s what appears in your blog, “and he told me so and so”. I think this is, there are some definite ethics issues involved here.

Annotation: Inner City Press' rule is that if a UN official says off the record, it is respected -- often, Inner City Press choses not to continue to listen to off the record presentations. At one stage Ms. Montas sought to convene Inner City Press into her office for a discipline session. Inner City Press reported the "invitation," which was not off the record. The session was then canceled by Ms. Montas. 

An entirely acceptable journalistic approach is, if you can't say it on the record, don't say it. Journalistic errors such as Judith Miller's of the New York Times' in the run up to the Iraq war were caused by allow people with power to put out information off the record.

Ms. Montas: We have a press corps here, and unfortunately we don’t have an ethics code the way a number of organizations, news organizations, have. And the ethics code should also apply; a basic ethics code should basically be applied.

Annotation: Is the UN in any position to define what is acceptable journalism? The UN allows a Special Representative of the Secretary General in Somalia who has called for a "moratorium" on reporting of the killing of civilians, and who most recently accused the Press of being complicit in genocide for asking him to response to Oxfam's testimony that the UN and UNDP support and pay police who commit human rights violations. After his outburst, he was congratulated by other UN media "professionals."

  In the few days since, Inner City Press is informed by its sources in Somalia that journalists seeking to investigate reports of rape by police at the "Mothers' Home" -- the former women's organisation headquarters in Mogadishu -- were threatened with AK47s by the police, the very police the UN envoy said should still be worked with. We'll have more on this.

Inner City Press: [inaudible]

Spokesperson: Since you actually talked to me about this and you mentioned in your e-mail my own background as a journalist, I would say that what I have read in your blog goes against many of the ethical values of journalism.

Annotation: It was unclear that the UN's noon briefing was a venue for Ms. Montas' personal views of acceptable journalism. Inner City Press asked by her views by e-mail on June 1 precisely so that time wouldn't be wasted in the UN's noon briefing. But Ms. Montas clearly preferred to vent in public.

Inner City Press: [inaudible] talking about Sri Lanka [inaudible]

Spokesperson: I am not talking about Sri Lanka. I am talking in general.

Correspondent: Okay. Just a coincidence.

    In the same way that Ms. Montas said that unnamed "colleagues" in the UN agree with her, let it be known that many people disbelieve that there is no connection between the May 8 -- and June 2 -- crackdown on the Press and coverage of the UN's problematic role in civilian casualties and interment in Sri Lanka. That is a country where those in power pontificate from their podiums on what is and is not acceptable journalism, and then uncooperative journalists are punished. But at the UN? Watch this site.

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