Sunday, January 22, 2017

Dispatches From SG Guterres Town Hall On UN Public Website, UN Tries To Censor

By Matthew Russell Lee
UNITED NATIONS, January 9 -- When new UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres held his first Town Hall meeting on January 9, Inner City Press went in early to stake it out - that is, stand in front and speak to attendees -- as it has in previous years.
   But this year, due to a retaliatory eviction by former Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's head of communications Cristina Gallach and Ban's spokesman Stephane Dujarric, Inner City Press could not pass through the turnstile on the UN's second floor. And there was no one in Gallach's Media Accreditation and Liaison Unit office. Inner City Press and its coverage were banned.
 But the Town Hall was on the UN's own external UN Webcast website, so Inner City Press from in front of MALU then the focus booth it has been reduced to working out of broadcast the screen by Periscope, with voiceover. 
  Three hours later, holdover spokesman Dujarric insisted in the day's UN noon briefing that it was only on the UN's "internal" website, to which Inner City Press does not have access. It's simple to check, but Dujarric didn't.  
  And here now some dispatches from the Town Hall meeting. A UN staff representative from Nairobi -- where Ban Ki-moon promoted his own son in law Siddharth Chatterjee to the top UN job -- complained of corruption and a lack of accountability.
  Guterres called the comments "tough" and pointed out that some say it is too hard in the UN to fire people for not working. It did not seem he meant Under Secretaries General like Cristina Gallach and Herve Ladsous, but rather lower level UN staff. He spoke about accountability. We'll see: those two particularly Gallach are litmus tests.
  A staff member from the UN Department of Management said that some 455 electronic questions or comments had been received. A speaker from the UN in Beirut said the online link should remain open. We agree - and note that one should be set up for the impacted public. Already people are asking Inner City Press and the Free UN Coalition For Access how to reach Guterres, like bkm [at]
  To a speaker from South Sudan, Guterres said that the country would be one of the topics at his lunch with members of the Security Council later in the day. (One wondered if Yemen and Burundi, even Western Sahara, will as well).
  UN Spokesperson Dujarric, who answers at best 10% of Press questions, late on Sunday highlight praise by British actor Tom Hiddleston at the Golden Globes award of aid workers in South Sudan. Fine, but why didn't the UN protect them at Terrain in Juba?
  As before, Dujarric seems to relish or benefit from absurd censorship threats hanging over the head of the Press. How long, in an ostenstibly new UN administration, will this be allowed?
  Inner City Press asked Dujarric at the noon briefing because another UN official came into the focus booth to order it to stop -- which it did -- and sent this:
"Dear Matthew,

Please note that the SG townhall meeting is for UN staff and is not an open meeting.

Therefore, broadcasting it is a breach of the guidelines.

With kind regards,

Media Accreditation and Liaison Unit "
   This is censorship: the meeting was on the UN's external website. Not a good start -- Gallach and Dujarric are leading even new SG Guterres down the garden path of censorship, at the world possible time for the UN. Watch this site.
The United Nations at the beginning of 2017 still has no Freedom of Information Act, no content neutral standards for media accreditation and no right to due process or appeal for journalists. This is UNacceptable.
New UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres should be expected to address these issues, and to hold at least monthly sit-down press conferences. On January 6 holdover spokesman Stephane Dujarric indicated he would wait for something to announce. But Q&A should not be tied to a particular UN announcement.
   Downgrading to non-resident correspondent status, and eviction from UN work-space, is not a legitimate way to respond to coverage of UN irregularities and corruption such as that alleged in the ongoing Ng Lap Seng / John Ashe UN bribery case. It must be reversed, but also non-resident correspondents should not be restricted to minders or escorts to cover events on the Conference Building's second floor.
On January 6, Dujarric and DPI's Cristina Gallach led Guterres on a tour that implied that only those who pay money to a group which last month gave an award to anti-press Ban Ki-moon, and who are granted (and not evicted in retaliation from) UN office space are part of the UN press corps. Click here for Inner City Press' story, and YouTube video. This will ill-serve Guterres, and the UN.

New SG Guterres is toured around by Gallach & Dujarric, Jan 6, 2017, photo by M.R. Lee
  Beyond headquarters, the UN in the field must become more responsive to local journalists. A Free UN Coalition for Accessmember in Hargeisa, Somaliland complains that the UN in Mogadishu refuses to answer simple journalistic questions. The same has occurred in Colombia, while the UN's leadership in Kenya has informed staff not to speak to particular media. This is UNacceptable.
  That former Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, among his very first acts upon leaving the UN, took legal action against reports of possible corruption during his tenure reflects badly on the UN. 
FUNCA hopes for a better 2017, but hope is not enough. The UN needs a FOIA, a reversal of recent anti-press decisions and due process and content neutral standards, and at least monthly Secretary General press conferences, going forward. We will have more on this; watch this site.