Politics & Policy

Good Journalism at the U.N.?

It might become harder to find.

With all the corruption at the United Nations, you might think that the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA) would have better things to do than pick a fight with a single reporter. But you would be wrong.

Matthew Lee is the only reporter for Inner City Press, a Bronx-based nonprofit group known mainly for investigations of financial institutions and advocacy for the poor. Lee has broken a number of stories about the U.N., but now he himself is the story. In fact, he could become the first journalist ever expelled from UNCA.

Last week, UNCA announced that it would investigate Lee for unethical and unprofessional behavior. Few reporters with knowledge of the situation wish to comment on the record, but journalists both inside and outside the UNCA say the situation is one in which personal animosity has overridden professional judgment.

Regarded as abrasive by some of his colleagues, Lee has had volatile arguments with other UNCA reporters, and has frequently complained about other journalists’ failing to credit him for breaking news. He has also written stories accusing the UNCA president, Giampaolo Pioli, of a conflict of interest involving Sri Lanka. These personal disputes lie at the heart of the UNCA investigation.

UNCA is a self-governing body. Thus, whether Lee remains a member is entirely up to the organization. UNCA membership is not a prerequisite for obtaining U.N. press credentials, which are granted by the U.N. Media Accreditation and Liaison Unit (MALU) — so Lee’s expulsion would not automatically deprive him of U.N. access. According to the Guidelines on Media Access at United Nations Headquarters:

The United Nations Department of Public Information as well as the Safety & Security Service reserve the right to deny or withdraw accreditation of journalists from media organizations whose activities run counter to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations or who abuse the privileges so extended or put the accreditation to improper use or act in a way not consistent with the principles of the Organization or established journalism ethics and standards.

A MALU spokesperson acknowledged that the U.N. has rescinded press credentials in the past, but she added that UNCA’s investigation of Lee would not directly influence MALU.  

Lee’s grammar and style are often unusual, and he sometimes fails to observe journalistic niceties. Although these traits are not uncommon among small media outlets, some journalists have expressed concern that they — along with an unfavorable UNCA decision — could allow the U.N. to deny Lee’s reapplication for press credentials on the basis that his actions are inconsistent with “established journalism ethics and standards.” His current credentials expire in August.

It would not be first time that Lee has been targeted. Inner City Press was scrubbed from Google News in 2008, allegedly at the behest of the U.N. At the time, UNCA came to Lee’s defense. But that was before his recent clashes with that organization and its members.

And Turtle Bay officialdom could be receptive to their new opinion of him. Lee is probably the U.N. Department of Public Information’s least-favorite journalist because he is persistent, is willing to ask uncomfortable questions, and has cultivated an impressive network of sources within the U.N. In short, he’s a pain in their neck at every press briefing.

Lee is also unusual in that he focuses on the inner workings of the U.N. — stories that are off the radar of larger news outlets. For instance, Lee broke the story about the discovery of 40 pounds of cocaine in a diplomatic pouch in the U.N. mailroom. He reported that Ibrahim Gambari, a special representative for Darfur of the African Union and the U.N., had greeted Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir at a wedding even as Bashir stood indicted on charges of genocide, and he wrote of the opulent home Gambari built in Darfur at U.N. expense. He has exposed irregularities with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in North Korea, and his coverage of a UNDP-funded program of forced disarmament in Uganda led to that program’s suspension.

Other reporters readily admit that Lee’s reporting is valuable. “He may not always get it right, but Matthew covers the U.N. like no one else, often scooping much larger news organizations,” the New York Post’s Benny Avni says. “Matthew digs into how it works — and often into how it doesn’t.”

Claudia Rosett, journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, notes: “Matthew Russell Lee has broken a series of important stories over the years — stories that without his efforts might have gone unnoticed.” Off the record, other reporters shared similar views with me.

Inner City Press has been a member of UNCA for five years, and all that time Lee’s U.N. press credentials have routinely been renewed. Thus, both UNCA and MALU have repeatedly affirmed Inner City Press’s status as a legitimate member of the media. I spoke with UNCA journalists who expressed the view that, regardless of what UNCA decides, Lee should retain his press credentials.

The U.S. mission to the U.N. has a role to play in this imbroglio. It should not intervene in internal UNCA deliberations, but it absolutely should stand firm in protecting the principle of freedom of the press. Media coverage of the U.N. is too shallow as it is. It would suffer more if reporters like Matthew Lee were denied access. The U.S. government should make clear to the U.N. that it supports Lee and other controversial journalists trying to retain their press credentials.

— Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation

Brett D. SchaeferBrett D. Schaefer is The Heritage Foundation’s Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs.


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