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Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN
UNITED NATIONS, March 29, updated March 30, 2 pm -- The UN, at which terrorism remains without a definition, decides in a decidedly murky process who can have access as a journalist to its briefings. Who decides, and how, were brought to the fore on Thursday by a denial of renewed accreditation. The UN's current definition is that a journalist's emphasis must be on original content and not commentary, and that reporters should not ask long and "non-governmental organization-like" questions.
The UN's policy on questioning, however, appears to some to be unevenly applied, based on the size of the media outlet. The UN's dismissing of commentary is called anachronistic and out-of-step with the online or "New" media, and an impediment to outreach, particularly in the UN's host country.
These questions were squared raised if not answered at the briefing of the Office of the Spokesperson of Secretary-General on Thursday. This same-day evolving exploration will try to get closer to answers. At the noon briefing, following read-outs from Sudan and Haiti, and questions about the fifteen UK military personnel in Iranian custody, Pincas Jawetz raised a more localized concern:
" My question relates to something that was asked yesterday about whistleblowers , and the attitude of some at the United Nations on things which they disagree with. And before asking my question, let me just state that this is probably going to be my last question for a while, because some at the Department of Public Information [DPI] disagree with some of my questions, so my pass isn't going to be renewed for a while."
The UN's Media Accreditation and Liaison Unit reviews applications for journalists' access to UN premises and briefings, and grants access on a temporary, monthly or annual basis. Mr. Jawetz, who states among other things that he was previously a "dollar a year man" at the UN's UNITAR unit, and that he for example in the 1980s met Pakistani scientist-turned-nuclear-proliferator A.Q. Khan, was accredited for six months from April to November 2006, then for an additional four months which as he recounted expired on Thursday.
At Thursday's noon briefing, at the request of a journalist from Fox television news, Mr. Jawetz read into the record a March 28 letter from Ahmad Fawzi, Director of the UN's News and Media Division, which stated "Mr. Jawetz does not meet the criteria of original reporting required for media accreditation, which can be found at www.un.org/media/accreditation." In a statement clarified or supplemented later Thursday by Mr. Fawzi in response to questions from Inner City Press, this March 28 letter continued:
"Mr. Jazetz's accreditation was reviewed by the Standing Committee of the Department of Public Information and the United Nations Correspondents Association, and the Committee concluded that there had been no developments that would reverse the earlier evaluation of his accreditation status."
The UN Correspondents Association, of which in full disclosure this reporter is an Executive Committee member, is a voluntary organization of journalists at the UN. While UNCA is a part of a Standing Committee with the UN's Department of Public Information, it is widely acknowledged that UNCA does not play a role of the accreditation of journalists to enter the UN and ask questions at UN briefings. In fact, at the February 28 meeting where Mr. Jawetz was discussed, the UN's Mr. Fawzi stated that "we are doing you the courtesy of informing you of the decision we are about to make," to decline to renew Mr. Jawetz' accreditation, which expired on March 29.
Inner City Press on Thursday afternoon put the following question to Mr. Fawzi:
While a broader comment on the place and utility of new / online media in covering the UN would be much appreciated, I feel a need to ask for your comment... were and are you saying that UNCA played a role in the non-renewal of Mr. Pincas Jawetz' accreditation? I understand that during a meeting (which I could not attend because there was a press briefing on the UN Pension Fund taking place at that time in Room 226) it was said to UNCA that, as to DPI's decision on Mr. Jawetz, DPI was "doing you the courtesy of informing you." Given that, how can (as some now say) silence by those UNCA members present be taken as consent and involvement in the decision?
Mr. Fawzi to his credit did respond by the extended deadline, with the following clarification: "The DPI-UNCA Standing Committee was briefed as a courtesy. If there were any objections, they could have been raised then. The decision was DPI's, based on the accreditation criteria. I cannot comment on the silence of UNCA members."
The discrepancy remains between DPI merely "informing" UNCA of a forthcoming DPI decision, and the March 29 letter's statement that the joint DPI and UNCA Standing Committee reached this conclusion. Once a group of people is told that a presentation is only for their information, as a courtesy, to infer consent from what comes after is dubious. From his able briefings last summer during the conflict in South Lebanon, Ahmad Fawzi's March 28 letter and its wording were surprising to some.
Interviewed on the threshold of his exclusion, Mr. Jawetz took issue with those who have said that UN corruption starts at the top. At the UN, the top level and the base are generally clean, he said. "It is the middle that's corrupt." It is inescapable that the rare on-the-record honest quote at the UN most often comes from those already fired or being excluded. Nearly all of Pincas Jawetz' detractors, and few supporters, spoke only on condition of anonymity. The fear of retaliation is not limited to formal UN staff.
The outgoing Under-Secretary-General (USG) for Public Information, Shashi Tharoor, attended a farewell party at the UNCA Club in the UN on Thursday. Since Mr. Jawetz had told Inner City Press that he'd long known Mr. Tharoor, and that Shashi had played some role in his accreditation to the UN, Inner City Press asked Tharoor about l'affaire Pincas. He answered that he was aware of it but had not been involved. Asked if he had known Pincas for some time, Mr. Tharoor said, "Only though UNCA events."
Mr. Jawetz recounts that in early 2006 at an event of the Asia Society, he told Mr. Tharoor of difficulties he had encountered being accredited to the UN. Mr. Jawetz says that Tharoor told him to contact Ahmad Fowzi, who received him in his office and told the head of the Media Accreditation and Liaison Unit, Gary Fowlie, to grant accreditation.
The "Size of Equipment" (And of Media Outlet)
Mr. Jawetz subsequently complained, in a way that did not change and is arguably not related to the subsequent denial of renewal of accreditation, about his interactions with Gary Fowlie. In a February 18 email sent to the Office of the Spokesperson and subsequently higher in DPI, Mr. Jawetz recounts that he "tried to get permission to go to a Photo-Op on the 38th floor. Mr. Fowlie laughed at my small camera and said the opportunity is only for those with large equipment."
Mr. Fowlie notes that the Photo-Op was limited to UN Photo, and states that the granting of access to visual media is not related in any way to camera size. Mr. Fowlie states that in this incident, he did not even speak with Mr. Jawetz; rather, another MALU then-staff member did. For the record, Mr. Fowlie categorially denies that he retaliated in response to Mr. Jawetz' email complaints, which he states he had not read until he saw them quoted in the Press. Hua Jiang of DPI's response was "Thank you very much for your note... You will be informed of the decision in due course."
Of online media, Mr. Fowlie has stated that bloggers can be accredited at the UN, if they produce original content and are cited in other media. On Thursday afternoon, alongside providing reporters with informal updates of the timing of Security Council actions , Mr. Fowlie indicated that the saga of Pincas Jawetz might not meet some litmus test of newsworthiness. But since the UN speaks of media freedom, and even gives directives to and in member states about responsible journalism and the importance of open societies, the UN's own dis-accreditation policies seem to meet the litmus test, or in this case, Pincas test.
Pincas' Bits: A Poll on the Specifics, Pro and (Mostly) Con
Informal polling of a cross-section of current UN correspondents uncovers a trend both of frustration at Mr. Jawetz' speech-giving style in UN news briefings, and concern that the journalists' trade association, UNCA, would be portrayed as involved in barring people from the UN. One Brazilian reporter, who asked to go unnamed due to concerns of UN reaction, praised Mr. Jawetz for his knowledge of Brazil, "not only ecology but also the people."
Another reporter quipped that because of Mr. Jawetz' sometimes repetitive questions about climate change, "I no longer give a damn about global warming, and it's the fault of Mr. Pincas, he's turned me off the issue." When asked, nearly all reporters acknowledged for example that Mr. Jawetz performed a service by raising, in a recent briefing by the UN's Dr. David Nabarro, the decision by Indonesia to stop providing samples to the UN's World Health Organizations if the samples would be passed on to for-profit medical firms. Video here .
Similarly, Mr. Jawetz asked among the most informed questions to, and got the most detailed answers from, UN climate change expert Yvo de Boer in two briefings this year. DPI counters with Mr. Jawetz' actions at briefings on January 5 and February 16 . In full disclosure, this reporter advised Pincas to ask shorter questions, to keep them questions, and to not remain limited to only climate change. That said, there are many issue-focused reporters at the UN, and speech- and opinion-giving is not limited to Mr. Pincas. Where should the line be drawn?
Some have suggested that UNCA itself ought to send warning letters to questioners perceived to have crossed this line that is not clear. (When asked, DPI cites to rules on demeanor not amended since 1983. Undeterred, DPI is known to have pointedly urged some reporters to file written complaints against others.) At the more competitive Security Council stakeout, Ambassadors or their staff often choose who can ask questions. Sometimes this appears based on the size and reach of the media outlet, sometimes on perceived bias or pungency of question.
Others have advised the Office of the Spokesperson to simply not call on repeatedly disruptive questioners. Generally, most reporters express satisfaction at the level of access to the Ambassadors and spokespeople of Security Council members, including at receptions like Thursday night's at the South African mission, following the Council's Iran press statement. Click here for Inner City Press' story on the day's Council's (in) activity.
Among those reporters who cover the UN as an organization engaged in procurement and as a workplace, there is frustration at the lack of access to, for example, any briefings from the Office of Internal Oversight Services, few press conferences by the heads of UN funds and programs such as UNDP's Kemal Dervis, even following Ban Ki-moon's January 19 announcement of an "urgent audit" of his agency's North Korea operations and, as was raised Thursday , at the lack, eight weeks on, of a briefing or even meet-and-greet, with Deputy-Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro. It is also noted that the head of the Department of Political Affairs, B. Lynn Pascoe, has yet to hold an on-the-record briefing.
Three Wider Press Policies at the UN: No FOIA, Old School, No Taiwan
The UN as of yet has not freedom of information policy -- that is, the press and public have no right to information, nor any formal process to request it. Kofi Annan's USG for Management, Christopher Burnham, had promised a freedom of information rule that would be, he said, the "gold standard." Before he left in late 2006 to work at Deutsche Bank, no FOIA rule was adopted. Earlier this week, Inner City Press asked current USG for Management Alicia Barcena about any progress on enacting a FOIA policy. Ms. Barcena indicated that she intends to confer with UNCA, to "ask you all how the policy would work best."
The lack of fit between the UN's press policies and the online New media, for example the now-apparently-diminishing use of the moniker "blog" to seek to deny accreditation, was indirectly panned at Thursday's noon briefing. Thomas Schindlmayr, the United Nations Disability Expert speaking the day before the opening for signature of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, specifically praised for the three-year passage of this Convention both NGOs and the Internet. Still the UN is resistant, demanding for example to see correspondents' work in "real" hardcopy publications.
Ironically, in Ban Ki-moon's native South Korea, the prevalence of high-speed connections and the centrality of online media is more advanced that in the U.S.. There are news websites with thousands of citizen correspondents filing dispatches and photos from their cell phones. It may be, as some say, that the UN's Department of Public Information machinery is out of step not only with the times but also with Mr. Ban. What will changed be, under Mr. Tharoor's successor Kiyotaka Akasaka? More than other USGs, he should be open to the press, including on these question of policy and access.
Another irony is that just as Ban Ki-moon ramps up his rhetoric on the issue of climate change, his DPI denies the accreditation renewal of the UN press corps most persistent questioner on global warming. While Pincas Jawetz was chided for seeing climate change in the most unlikely places, it is not clear that given his exclusion, the issue will be raised even where it is relevant.
The UN refuses, as acknowledged by Mr. Fawzi at the February 28 meeting, to "accredit a journalist from Taiwan, because they are not a quote-unquote country recognized by the United Nations." The reference is to the UN accreditation guidelines , which require that an applicant "represent bona fide media organizations [formally registered as a media organization in a country recognized by the United Nations General Assembly]" (brackets in original ).
This UN policy seems fraught with problems. How would it apply to a dissident publication in Sudan, for example, or in the Zimbabwe of Robert Mugabe, a topic on which the UN Security Council received a briefing on March 29 ? For that matter, what of publications in the United States, since under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, the government does "register" media organizations? It has been explained that the tortured phrasing of the guidelines are intended to justify exclusion of journalists from Taiwan. But even if that were legitimate -- which to many is dubious -- why does it not then apply to journalists from Georgia's breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossentia, to Nagorno-Karabakh or Puntland or Somaliland? The question was put in writing on Thursday even to Mr. Fawzi, and the UN's responses will be reported on this site. Developing.
[Notes on the updates: in the spirit of transparency, all March 30, 2 pm edits were to the paragraph involving camera size. The sentence "Mr. Jawetz subsequently complained, to his detriment it is now clear, about his interactions with Gary Fowlie" has been changed to "Mr. Jawetz subsequently complained, in a way that did not change and is arguably not related to the subsequent denial of renewal of accreditation, about his interactions with Gary Fowlie." To be clear, the first version was not intended to imply any retaliation by Mr. Fowlie for Mr. Jawetz' email complaints, which Mr. Fowlie states he had not read until he saw them quoted in the Press. Mr. Fowlie made a point of telling Inner City Press on March 30 that he views Mr. Jawetz as "a passionate advocate for the environment." The continuum between advocate and journalist and how the UN and its Department of Public Information should approach it in 2007 will continue to be explored, hopefully in a not humorless way.
Mr. Fowlie's account of the Photo-Op at issue has been added, as has the name of the DPI staffer who responded on March 22 to Mr. Jawetz' March 21 email. The characterization of the response in the initial version has been removed. The characterization called the response "tongue-in-cheek" and was intended to highlight that the quote about camera size was included largely for its seeming comedic quality. On that note, another correspondent notes that even those photographers allowed to the 38th floor must first have their equiptment sniffed. Another correspondent has suggested a new title for this section of the article, which we confine to this separate endnote to avoid any further misunderstanding: "World Body: Size Doesn't Matter."
Source: Inner City Press