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Alan Johnston Is One of Many Journalists Held Hostage, For Whom the Drums Should Be Beaten

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, May 3 -- BBC journalist Alan Johnston has been held captive in Gaza for 52 days. On World Press Freedom Day at UN Headquarters, these fact was heard repeatedly: in a rally in front of the UN, in a lunch sponsored by UNESCO and, delivered by Alan Johnston's boss Jon Williams, to a half-dozen reporters on Thursday afternoon.

            Mr. Williams was asked if the BBC has received random demands, a question to which he declined to comment. Well placed diplomatic sources confirm that such demands have been made. BBC's position, it is said, is that it would not object to the family paying ransom, but it will not do so itself, for fear of precedent. A UN source asked Inner City Press, was Alan Johnson there reporting for his family? Or was it for the BBC?

            Inner City Press asked Williams if any other BBC journalists have been taken hostage. Williams mentioned one case: "in Pakistan last year, one of our local stringers was abducted for a few days, in the tribal areas." He said that in the 75 years of the World Service, BBC has "never previously had a British correspondent kidnapped." Now, he said, "there is no other Gaza news except for Alan Johnston. It is a test for the unity government" and the Palestinian Authority.

            Some in the press corps grew uncomfortable with distinctions Mr. Williams made, between British and international journalist on the way hand, and local reporters, or stringers, or media workers on the other. Inner City Press asked if any other journalists are currently held hostage in Gaza. "No international journalists, right now," Williams replied. How about Palestinians? He said he wasn't sure.

            It was pointed out to Williams, with all due respect for Alan Johnston, that reporters are being killed every week in Iraq. Eleven reporters are dead from Al Arabia alone, since the beginning of the war in Iraq. Many others have been taking for ransom.

            Mr. Williams said, "I invite the bosses of other journalists who are abducted or kidnapped or killed to make the same hue and cry that I have, about Alan Johnston." But smaller and more local media outlets do not have the same bullhorn. BBC has the drum, and knows how to beat it. But some do not even have a drum.

Free Alan. And...

            The answer is certainly not for BBC to do less to seek the release of Alan Johnston. BBC should use its drum. But what of the drumless? Can the drum be shared? It was surprising on Thursday that Jon Williams was not prepared to address the not-uncommon concern of the disparity in response to the kidnapping of one British journalists to the killings of dozens of Arab reporters, and untold additional "local media workers."

   A UN correspondent who requested anonymity to not offend the BBC analogized what the correspondent called the "over-kill" about Alan Johnston to the response to the seizure of the British sailors in Iran. Another went further back in history, and even more politically incorrect, to note the difference in media-time and peacekeeping dollars spent in the (European) former Yugoslavia to the (African) situations in Rwanda and now, for example, Somalia.

            Inner City Press asked if the BBC has any reporters in South and Central Somalia, particularly in Mogadishu. No, he said. The BBC Somali service used to "send people in and out," then withdrew. Are there local reporters there now? Williams said, "In all honestly, I don't know whether the BBC has local people reporting for the Somali service... I don't know."

            It might be important to find out. And while awaiting the hopefully-positive resolution of the Alan Johnston case, it might also be important for the news and media industry, BBC included, to reflect on these distinctions, between "international journalists" and, by implication less valuable, "local media workers." Reporters of global news are too well positioned, seeing the number of deaths and kidnappings in Iraq and Somalia and elsewhere, to not better address these disparities.

            One UN source interviewed by Inner City Press analogized the situation to "that American girl who went missing in Aruba." Why did CNN devote some much time to that, and not to the many more women killed in, for example, Juarez in Mexico?

            Another cynic opined that Mr. Williams' presentation, at least on Thursday afternoon, seemed more calculated to absolve BBC than anything else. Williams said that risk can never be eliminated, only "managed." He said that all BBC foreign correspondents get safety training, including on what a bullet-proof vest can stop, and what it can't.

            While Mr. Williams, even when asked if the training is "military," declined to provide more details, Reuters has a one-week long program called the "hostile environment" training course. It is offered by a private security firm comprised, Inner City Press is told, mostly of "former British special forces types." No one at Reuters including freelance photographers can go on a posting in a war zone or any place deemed to be a hostile working environment (like Darfur) without doing the training, whose cost is estimated at $10,000 each.

            Speaking of the importance of (some) press, Mr. Williams said that in a time when news is "two to a penny... there is a premium on serious journalism. Where there is so much noise, you need someone to make sense of it all." And these sense-providers are worth more than the "two to a penny" noise makers.

            (Conclusory) news analysis: Neither World Press Freedom Day, nor the just campaign to get Alan Johnston freed, have any place for elitism. It's not that BBC should not beat the drum -- it's that the drum should be shared.

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U.S. Highlights Bloggers at the UN, While Keeping Them from Amb. Khalilzad
Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, May 3, updated 5:45 p.m. -- While the U.S. Mission to the UN holds a forum celebrating the "citizen journalists," the UN has no policy for granting bloggers and other online media access to it meetings and briefings.

   Then again, the U.S. Mission on World Press Freedom Day itself held a by-invitation-only briefing by new Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and did not invite or even alert any bloggers. Rather, Inner City Press received from the U.S. Mission an invitation to the "Citizen Journalist: The Internet as a Tool for Freedom of Speech" panel, along with an invitation to "blog live" from the event. Fine. We're here. But to respect bloggers and freedom of speech is not to create a second tier, where as on the invitation other countries' press crack-downs can be panned. It is to treat fact-collecting bloggers as reporters, and grant them access.

            Wednesday at the UN, the Committee to Protect Journalists listed 10 press freedom backsliders, including a number of countries currently supported by the U.S.. In the top three backsliders is Ethiopia, to which the U.S. provided military support in its drive on Mogadishu. Then, the U.S. allowed Ethiopia to import tank parts from North Korea. Ah, freedom of speech.

Mr. Ban and Condi Rice: press access, anyone?

            But on to the panel. The introduction was by a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Jeffrey Krilla, who thanked the UN for "accommodating this event." Some wondered why, on the other hand, the U.S. had made Amb. Khalilzad available at its Mission, and not in the UN's press briefing room.  Bridget Johnson a/k/a GOP Vixen then cited the CPJ finding that one-third of imprisoned reporters are online journalists. She turned it back to Krilla, who as it turns out beyond Democracy, Human Rights and Labor also has corporate social responsibility in his portfolio at the State Department. Has he raised press freedom to Yahoo, which turned over to China information about cyber-dissidents, subsequently arrested? Was Ethiopia's press freedom record considered in connection with the U.S. support, in connection with the crack-down on Somalia and otherwise? We'll see, if and when a Q&A session is allowed.

            Reporters without Borders spoke of new Predators of Press Freedom report, naming Mexico, Cuba and hostage-takers in Iraq. RwB cites 65 imprisoned cyber-dissidents, 50 of them in China. (Another panelist, with PointPoint presentation, were Frank Xie, a practitioner of Falun Gong and Watson Meng of Boxun News, who also detailed Yahoo's craven crack-down on dissidents in China.) RwB's Tala Dowlatshahi mentioned the case in San Francisco of the video blogger imprisoned for months for not given prosecutors the footage he had shot. Could that have been the Bush administration's Department of Justice? Even doing research on-the-fly, blogging from the event itself, it would seem so: the blogger Josh Wolf spent 226 days in Federal lock-up. Perhaps Mr. Krilla -- or even Amb. Khalilzad or Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice -- will address these inconsistencies. Developing.

Update of 2:15 p.m. -- Frank Xie showed his three web sites, two of which his mother in China does not have access to. China, he says, is exporting its web-blocking technology to North Korea, Cuba and Sudan.

Nora Younis of Egypt details Egypt's crackdown on bloggers who cover violence between Muslims and Copts and, as she did, the beating of Sudanese refugees in Egypt. Meanwhile, Ban Ki-moon and Condi Rice are in Egypt. Will they mention this? We'll be watching.

Update of 2:35 p.m. -- Inner City Press asked Nora Younis if the UN is doing enough -- or anything -- to raise the issue of press and blogger freedom in Egypt. No, she said. The UN is not doing enough.

Inner City Press asked Mr. Krilla what the U.S. is doing about Ethiopia's CJP-exposed crackdown on reporters. "Good question," he said, mentioning that he'd been in Ethiopia a few weeks ago and that other countries should also apply pressure. But what is the U.S. doing?

 A speaker raised the point that Tunisia, which uses censor-ware from U.S.-based Secure Computing, blocked full Internet access even at a UN event -- something on which we hope to have more to report soon.

Update of 2:47 p.m. -- Mr. Krilla, asked what the U.S. will do about "bloggers" rights, at the UN and elsewhere, responded that there had been UN "heartburn" about this panel. From Egypt? From China? If the past holds, neither will even say...

Update of 5:45 p.m. -- At the exit from the event, the U.S. Department of State distributed a flier, dated April 30, entitled "U.S. Supports Press Freedom Worldwide." It had lists of "Countries with Continually Poor Records on Press Freedom" and "Countries with Deteriorating Conditions for Press Freedom." Ethiopia is not on either U.S. State Department list, despite being named the worst backslider by the Committee to Protect Journalists....

 On the other hand, it's to the U.S. Mission's credit that it pushed to hold this panel discussion, and inside the UN building. Who else would have done it? The UK, for example, even when it got a briefing on Zimbabwe, consented that it be limited to humanitarian issues, and has yet to follow up on it. That said, not only is the U.S. for example trying to have it two ways with Ethiopia, it's own Mission to the UN falls short of Republic of Congo, Peru, Russia and China in that U.S. Ambassador Khalilzad has to date refused to hold a press conference on his plan of work as Security Council president for the month of May. Every other recent Council presidency has held such a press conference, allowing the press -- blogger(s) included -- to ask about what's on the agenda, and what's not. But the U.S. falls short, and has yet to provide any explanation. Developing (it is hoped).

Online and other Journalists Under Attack by Governments and even the UN, on Press Freedom Day

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, May 2 -- One third of the reporters currently imprisoned by governments worldwide are online journalists, according to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists. In a briefing to the UN press corps on Wednesday, CPJ deputy director Robert Mohoney said his organization is calling high-tech companies to task, specifically in light of Yahoo's decision to give the Chinese government email records of a subsequently-arrested cyber-dissident.

            Since CPJ was speaking at the UN, Inner City Press asked Mr. Mahoney if the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, which has for years had a 20,000 person presence in the press-benighted Democratic Republic of the Congo, could be doing more to promote the principles of press freedom. Inner City Press asked, What should the UN system be doing? Video here, from Minute 17:40.

            "The UN should abide by its own principles," CPJ's Maloney said, praising the press releases and expressions of concern issued by UN affiliate UNESCO. Inner City Press pointed out that, for example, UNESCO might criticize Uzbekistan for blocking access to news sites, but the UN Development Program is working with that country's Karimov government on an "open source software" program that does not address -- and, some surmise, allow for -- the censorship.

            Mr. Mahoney did not directly answer this question. Rather he pointed out that he had met on Friday with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who "expressed support for the work we do and solidarity with journalists in conflict zones." Mr. Mahoney advised Inner City Press to "ask his spokesperson's department." Perhaps on Thursday, which is World Press Freedom Day and on which a rally will be held across from UN Headquarters for the BBC's Alan Johnston, kidnapped since March 12, some new press release is slated for issuance. Mr. Ban is in Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt, a country which has recently for the first time imprisoned a blogger, according to Joel Campagna, CPJ's Middle East and North Africa coordinator.

            In the openly nationalistic UN press corps, Mr. Campagna was called on to justify the inclusion in the list of Morocco in CPJ's list of press freedom backsliders. Video here, from minute 27:08. Mr. Campagna rattled off the names of three imprisoned Moroccan journalists. The Moroccan correspondent challenged him, "Only three?"

Last year at the UN: plus ca change

            Mr. Mahoney emphasized that the list excludes the war zones of Iraq and Somalia, and is based on seven categories: "government censorship, judicial harassment, criminal libel prosecutions, journalist deaths, physical attacks on the press, journalist imprisonments, and threats against the press."  This gave rise to questions about the more subtle repression "in the West," with reference to media conglomerates firing outspoken commentators. Mr. Mahoney noted that CPJ closely followed the case in San Francisco of the video blog imprisoned for months for refusing to give the police the footage he shot of a protest march.

            It is worth noting that the UN has engagements with three of the four worst press freedom backsliders, according to CJP: The Gambia (where UNDP acceded to the throwing out of its representative by President Jammeh, for questioning his dubious AIDS cure, and sent a more compliant officer in charge), Ethiopia (whose invasion of Somalia the UN has supported) and the DR Congo, the site of the UN's biggest investment in its history. Mr. Mahoney on Wednesday acknowledged that in compiling its report, CPJ did not visit the DRC, much less talk to the UN mission's head, the American William Lacy Swing.  Despite CPJ's seemingly limited focus on the UN, as a venue from which to garner a press release of support from the Secretary General, it seems fair to ask if the UN is doing enough for press freedom. This would include ensuring that employees of the UN and its funds and program are not told not to speak to the press.

            Recent events at UN Headquarters reflect a less than cutting edge approach by the UN bureaucracy to online media. Here's hoping, among other things, that CPJ's presentation and the ongoing work of UNESCO and others help bring UN Headquarters into the ballpark on press freedom, and into the 21st century.

UN Refugee Czar Guterres Praises Sudan and Mozambique, Questions U.S.-Australia Asylum Swap

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, May 1 -- The UN's High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, on Tuesday praised the policies of Sudan and Mozambique, while expressing reservations about the reported plan to swap asylum-seekers between Australia and the United States. That plan would only pass legal muster if the people switched from central Australia -- or Nauru -- to Guantanamo Bay wanted to make that move. "It depends on the will of the people," Mr. Guterres told Inner City Press in the hallway of the UN.

            Fielding questions from reporter, Mr. Guterres described his recent visit to Eastern Sudan, where over 100,000 Eritrean refugees live in "arid and difficult conditions." Inner City Press asked about reports that several thousand have not be accorded refugee status. Mr. Guterres indicated that Sudan has been generous, and that even those whose claims are rejected receive assistance from the Sudanese government. This is not a message heard in many other places.

Malaria hospital for refugees in east Sudan, per UNHCR

            Mr. Guterres seemed to go out of his way to praise member states. Asked about reports that Mozambique refuses to afford refugee status to those fleeing Zimbabwe, Guterres responded that legal status may not matter, as long as people are not sent back. At the same time, he spoke of the difficulties for those who have fled Iraq, only to find that the type of passport they have had is no longer valid. So legal status does matter.

            Inner City Press asked about North Korean refugees, both those recently hunger-striking in Thailand, and those who arrive in China. Mr. Guterres said that the hunger strike has been resolved, and the "flow" to South Korea restored. Regarding China, Guterres went out of his way to say that he agrees that many who leave North Korea do so "because they are hungry," and for "economic reasons." Nevertheless, he acknowledged, once they leave, they would be persecuted if returned.

    Under North Korea law, it is a crime to leave or attempt to leave the country without permission. Therefore, Mr. Guterres said, the moment China moves to return them to North Korea, they become refugees. It was an interesting answer, but pointedly did not criticize China for its actual policy of refoulement -- sending asylum seekers back to face torture. Mr. Gutteres said, he was a politician for 30 years, but now that he's at UNHCR, he won't answer political questions about who's to blame for the displacement. But what about when it is the UN itself that is supporting the displacer? We'll have more on this.

UN's Holmes "Condemns" Reported Somali TFG Statements, While Withholding Documents

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, April 24 -- The Somali Transitional Federal Government, which relies for its legitimacy on the UN, yesterday told the UN that aid workers will have "unimpeded access" to serve those people fleeing the TFG's shelling of Mogadishu.

            In New York, Inner City Press asked UN humanitarian chief John Holmes what the UN's response has been to two sample statements, by TFG president Yusuf that civilian neighborhoods can be shelled, and by TFG defense official Salad Ali Jeele, that certain clans and sub-clans in Mogadishu need to be exterminated (click here for that).

            Mr. Holmes responded that "the statements you've quoted, I would condemn them utterly." Video here, from minute 35:13.

            Inner City Press asked about the letter which it obtained and reported on April 20 in which TFG Minister for Interior Mohamed Mohamoud Guled wrote to the UN World Food Program that

"It's TFG decision that there will be no food distribution can take place anywhere in Somalia without being inspected and approved by the government. Hence UN agencies and any other organization that is planning to bring any relief to Somalia should submit the documents for the goods before shipment for checkup."

            This letter from the Transitional Federal Government to the WFP was cc-ed to the Somali National Refugee Commission, through which Inner City Press is told the TFG had been saying all aid must flow. Asked about this on Tuesday, Mr. Holmes said, "I have no information on that particular organization." That might be a problem.

Mr. Ban and Mr. Yusuf

            Prior to Mr. Holmes' briefing, WFP told Inner City Press the following:

Subject: Somalia

From: [WFP Spokesperson]

To: Matthew Russell Lee

Sent: Mon, 23 Apr 2007 6:09 PM

Hi Matthew,  there were talks between the UN and TFG today. Here's a short update, from Peter Goossens, WFP Country director Somalia:

"The talk between the UN and a TFG commission led by the Heath Minister were positive. The TFG will issue a statement on the outcome. We hope that we will from now on be allowed to use any airstrip in Somalia to bring in humanitarian assistance. We also need to see on the ground that we are now allowed to bring that assistance urgently to those most in need, particularly those displaced by the fighting in Mogadishu."

            Tuesday Mr. Holmes said essentially the same thing. However, when asked if any documents could be provided -- the letter from UN Humanitarian Coordinator Eric Laroche, or the above-referenced TFG statement -- Mr. Holmes said only that "I'll look into that, if we can provide you chapter and verse." Ten hours later, no documents had been provided. It's not "chapter and verse" -- it's basic documents about what Mr. Holmes is calling the world's most dangerous for aid workers. Silence doesn't help; silence is consent. Developing...

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