The Corner

Time for the U.S. to Take a Stand for Press Freedom at the U.N.

There is a disturbing new wrinkle in the troubling effort to oust Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press from the United Nations Correspondents Association. Voice of America, whose reporter Margaret Besheer was one of the original journalists lodging the complaint about Lee to UNCA, has intensified the confrontation, officially requesting that Stephane Dujarric, head of the U.N.’s News &. Media Division, review Lee’s press accreditation.

Worse, this taxpayer-supported operation is urging the U.N. to rescind Lee’s accreditation. The U.S. mission should intervene to block this press-chilling maneuver.

The effort to drop Lee from UNCA’s membership is disappointing, but that membership is not a prerequisite for being a credentialed member of the U.N. press corps. U.N. press credentials are granted by the UN Media Accreditation and Liaison Unit (MALU).  By asking that Lee’s U.N. press credentials be reviewed, VOA is seeking to deny him entirely the ability to access the U.N. as a member of the media. Since Inner City Press focuses almost exclusively on the U.N., it is no exaggeration to say that this would cripple Lee’s ability to do his job.

#more#Ostensibly, VOA is making the request because it considers Lee “disruptive and unprofessional.” Furthermore, the letter states, “his behavior is impeding the freedom VOA’s correspondent and others need in order to report what they see and know from the United Nations.” VOA does not accuse Lee of physically threatening anyone, but of sending numerous “borderline harassing” e-mails that make reporters “uncomfortable.” Apparently, all the hard-bitten reporters are off covering other beats. 

Richard Grenell, who served as the United States Spokesman at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations for eight years, sees different motivations behind the complaint: fear of competition and a desire to protect the U.N. from Lee’s inquiries.

The UN press corps functions as the 194th member of the United Nations. There are some amazingly dedicated and tough reporters at the UN, but they are overshadowed by the majority who have their own priorities when covering the UN. These types protect the UN system and those that support it.

Matt Lee from InnerCityPress wrote constantly about issues that nobody else covered.  He forced me to work harder and keep up with arcane issues or new angles. He isn’t playing the UN reporters’ game and so they will use their institutional power to oust him. His small but constant operation is taking on the diplomatic hierarchy, and those that fear being exposed as non-journalists are going to fight hard against him. I hope the leadership of Bloomberg News, Reuters and the taxpayer funded Voice of America take notice of their reporters’ actions at the UN to muscle out a tenacious and aggressive reporter who keeps scooping them.

On the U.N.’s World Press Freedom Day this past May, Secretary Hillary Clinton stated, “When a free media is under attack anywhere, all human rights are under attack everywhere.” It is very hard to square that firm support for freedom of the press with a U.S.-government-funded broadcaster like VOA seeking to oust an American journalist from the U.N. because he makes a reporter uncomfortable and doesn’t act as they would like him to act.

Unlike journalists in many other countries, Lee’s life isn’t under threat. But his livelihood is. The U.S. Mission should remind the U.N. that Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defends freedom of expression and the media.  It is just as relevant in the corridors of Turtle Bay as it is elsewhere.  

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


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