By Matthew Russell Lee
UNITED NATIONS, March 28 -- Amid increasingly retaliation from the UN for Inner City Press' reporting and attempts to cover not only crises like Burundi and Yemen and Western Sahara but also UN corruption, Inner City Press on the evening of March 28, after receiving a legal threat from the UN's top lawyer, issued this open letter to US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, cc-ed:
March 28, 2016
Dear Ambassador Power:
I write to you as a journalist who has covered the United Nations for ten years, who has for example asked you questions about Burundi and UN peacekeeper rapes, but who now faced eviction from the UN and hindering of my reporting in retaliation for my efforts to cover corruption in the Organization.
As set forth below, on February 19 on the order of UN Under Secretary General for Public Information Cristina Gallach, who never once spoke to me, I was thrown out onto First Avenue, my laptop thrown on the sidewalk.Audio here.
On February 26, the DC-based Government Accountability Project wrote to your colleague Ambassador Isobel Coleman urging your Mission to response to this retaliation and to ensure Inner City Press is restored to its shared office space and Resident Correspondent accreditation.
But today, March 28, I have received a letter from Under Secretary General for Legal Affairs Miguel de Serpa Soares ignoring all arguments about retaliation and freedom of the press and of expression, and reiterated USG Gallach's threat to evacuate eight years of files or have them removed by the UN.
In this context, still not having heard back from your Deputy or Spokesperson, I am writing this open letter. I have heard that some in the US Mission have delayed acting on GAP's requests, saying that some other journalists don't like me. Others do; more fundamentally, I do not believe that journalism, particularly investigative journalism, is a popularity contest.
(But be aware, USG Gallach and SG Ban Ki-moon have received protests to their retaliation from, for example, Sri Lanka's Northern Provincial Council - and responded withmispresentations - as well as groups in Burundi, Yemen and elsewhere. There is an online petition, here, with more than 1000 signatures and comments.)
I also believe that even if one is a supporter of the UN, the Organization is not helped by covering up corruption, or rapes by its peacekeepers, or hindering media which digs into and reports on these.
The supposed basis for my ouster has not held up. I endeavored to cover an event in the UN Press Briefing Room, where you have held press conferences, on January 29. I had published an article about the event two days before; I openly live-streamed it on Periscope over my phone, entirely visible in the glassed in interpreters booth I used in order to not interact with the event.
The event was nowhere listed as closed; I believed and believe that events in the UN Press Briefing Room are presumptively open to all and not just some journalists, until the UN Journal or UN Security say otherwise. Two UN spokespeople asked me to leave as a favor; shortly thereafter when a single UN Security officer told me the Spokesman wanted me to leave, I did. I published a story, and the video.
Three weeks later, without a single conversation or opportunity to be heard - with no due process -- my Resident Correspondents pass was deactivated and I was handed to letter to leave in two hours. That evening, as I was typing up the Syria meeting of the Security Council, I was pushed down the escalator by eight UN Security guard and thrown out onto First Avenue. Audio here.
(The 17th Precinct, notable, told me they have no jurisdiction over the UN.)
On Monday February 22, I was told I was banned from all UN premises. After covering the UN and Security Council for three days from the Ralph Bunche Park across the street, and stories in BuzzFeed and Business Insider, I re-entered with a restricted “non-resident correspondent” pass. This has resulted, as your colleague Ambassador Coleman has been informed by another branch of the US government, in the hindering of my reporting.
But this hindering, these double standards and threats have continued. As I explained in an email to your Deputy and Spokesperson on March 26, before receiving USG de Serpa Soares eviction threat, last week the unjustly reduced accreditation status resulted in me being unable to stakeout and cover the Western Sahara meeting of the Security Council on Monday, March 21 (video here).
Even more Orwellian, right after the Council's president read out Press Elements on March 24, I was told by MALU staff I had to leave the stakeout immediately, without speaking with any diplomats.
After I said that I have a right to report -- USG Gallach has said I will have the same access, which has not been true -- I was told the only way I could stay was with an a MALU / Secretariat “escort.”
This discourages diplomats and whistleblowers from speaking, with a Secretariat minder present, and in context is tantamount to UN censorship. It is unacceptable and USG Gallach's order must be reversed.
As I have explained and is now even more clear, there was no basis for the penalty in USG Gallach's February 19 letter ousting me from the UN on two hours notice. The meeting I covered was nowhere listed as closed; I filmed it openly, live-streaming on Periscope.
I have been informed that USG Gallach tells interlocutors, including up from Washington, that my violation was being in the interpreters booth. She has refused to produce any rule in that regard, and this past week on March 23 I witnessed and filmed two non-interpreters in the “Other” interpretation booth of the UN Press Briefing Room as the noon briefing took place. Video here.
UN Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq did nothing about these non-interpreters in the interpretation booth, quite different from my treatment on Jan 29 and since. On March 24 I asked Haq about it and he admitted he had not known who the individuals in the interpretation booth were the previous day. Video here.
So there is no rule, or no rule that is even arguably evenly enforced, in the regard. USG Gallach's order must be reverse: it is not only unjust and untenable: it is resulting in UN censorship.
On March 25 USG Gallach replied to a Western Sahara advocacy group in New Zealand which asked “why did you remove the accreditation of Inner City Press?” Gallach replied, photo here, that “I did not! ICP is fully accredited! Can report from UN.?His privilege to use office was taken out, due to misbehavior.”
Not only is it false that I “fully accredited” - I have had a reduction in accreditation and access and have been banned from the Security Council stakeout on March 21 and required to have a Secretariat “minder” on March 24 -- it also echoes exactly the argument made by two new anonymous social media accounts which USG Gallach follows.
One of these accounts has devoted all of its 600 plus tweets since it began just after my ouster on February 19 to denigrating Inner City Press and misleadingly saying that I have full access. This account is clearly affiliated with UNCA - it tweets about what happened in the UNCA meeting after Inner City Press was ejected, including a refusal then to provide a hard copy of the budget - and is, on information and belief, associated with Reuters, which conducted a similar “troll” campaign in 2013.
The second account is also devoted to denigrating Inner City Press and sounds suspiciously like the Voice of America correspondent who sought to get Inner City Press out in 2012, until exposed under the US Freedom of Information Act.
(Since for example John Kerry is on the Broadcasting Board of Governors which runs VOA, I believe you and the Mission should particularly look into and take action on this.)
The UN should have a Freedom of Information. Inner City Press and I - and the alternative Free UN Coalition for Access - are entirely for free speech. But for major media to open anonymous accounts to attack a smaller media, to have it followed and echoed and even obeyed by the UN's USG for Public Information, is too much.
This too: on March 24 as I worked on Western Sahara, UNCA President Giampaolo Pioli approached me and said, “You are an assh*le,” loudly. He repeated this several more times, even as I advocated with UN Security not to lock the glass door to the Security Council until the Western Sahara meeting was over. Audio here.
If I have had my accreditation cut and access to my office denied for five week for trying to cover a meeting I believed and believe related to the John Ashe / Ng Lap Seng / Frank Lorenzo / South South News / Vivian Wang case, or for being uncivil, how can UNCA's president be allowed to repeatedly call me an assh*le as I work at the Security Council stakeout? USG Gallach has done nothing.
At this point, USG Gallach has turned over the powers of her office to a witchhunt, which began in 2011 with an attempt to censor my coverage of Sri Lanka. Notably while the response to Sri Lanka's Northern Provincial Council's March 1 letter to the 38 floor was signed by UNICEF's Una McCauley, when asked about its inaccuracy UNICEF has said, "Ask DPI."
USG Gallach's February 19 order must be reversed and this witchhunt and censorship must end. Inner City Press must be restored to its long time shared office space and Resident Correspondent accreditation status immediately, to allow it to report without intimidation or censorship.
I make this request to you personally, as a former journalist, who clearly has the power to have this reversed. I await your response.
Thank you for your time.
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