UN Official Speaks of Punishing the Press, Alleging
Cowardice, Ouster for 1 or 2 Critical Accounts
Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at
the UN: News Analysis
UNITED NATIONS, February 21 -- Senior UN officials
are trying to formulate responses to investigative documentary journalism about recent events
at UN Headquarters. These include a
February 17 death on the South Lawn, allegations
of UN involvement in censorship and
questions of ambulance access to an apparent
heart attack victim. On February 21 the chief of the UN's rehabilitation effort
Michael Adlerstein spoke heatedly to Inner City Press for ten minutes. The
official immediately above him, Under Secretary General for Management Alicia
Barcena, also sent a four-paragraph missive in the form of a letter to the
editor, which is published below in full.
with Mr. Adlerstein's comments because they were less scripted, including
accusations of cowardice and references to punishment for the material Inner
City Press has published. Another journalist was accompanying Inner City Press
tape recording an impromptu interview with the director of a non-governmental
organization in India when Mr. Adlerstein, the Assistant Secretary General
for the UN's Capital Master Plan, doubled back and began by asking "about this
photograph that you published." Inner City Press replied that while it had
already taken down the photograph, and had informed Ms. Barcena and others of
this fact, any and all questions would be answered, there in the lobby where Mr.
Adlerstein chose to dialogue, or in a subsequent column, including the
On Sunday, February 17 there was an
emergency meeting of the Security Council at 1 p.m. about Kosovo. In preparing
to cover it,
the death, and the placing of bags over the decedent's hands, were inescapable.
Mr. Adlerstein asked, "What does that have to do with the photograph?"
Inner City Press replied, and replies,
Because that's what the photograph is of, that the bagging of the hands to
people say, maybe you should just have written. And I understand that position;
I don't think that's an unreasonable position. I don't know where it is written
that a body under a blanket, which AP ran, and it went all over the world, and
nobody has said anything to them from the UN. The UN has said to me that if AP
did it, it's okay. But if you did something different than AP, we're going to
come down on you like a bag of bricks... Now I've received a letter from Ms.
Barcena saying 'we're outraged,' cc-ing Vijay Nambiar, Mr. Akasaka, and I'm not
sure what the purpose of that is. I'm going to run the letter, and that's fine,
that's her position. I don't want to treat it in any disrespectful way, but I'm
not, from what I heard yesterday, she seized on it as an opportunity to attempt
to throw me out of the UN."
Whereupon ASG Adlerstein said, "What should
be your punishment?"
But where in the mandate of the
Capital Master Plan does punishing journalists figure?
Adlerstein asked, "Can you say yes or
no, did you make a mistake?"
"I don't like the line of reasoning. If
I say I made a mistake--"
Adlerstein then cited questions that have been asked
of him, about ongoing litigation about an alleged conflict of interest involving
a former position in New Jersey, "It's the same line of reasoning that you use
on everybody else. You always say, you know, did you screw up here? Your job
as a reporter is to hold us accountable. And to hold yourself accountable. Did
you make a mistake?"
"I took the photograph down. If that's
how you want to interpret it."
Adlerstein said, "I'm not interpreting
anything. I'm asking you, did you make a mistake?"
"At the time I ran it, I thought it made
sense. Now, I don't think it makes sense to keep it up anymore, that's why I
took it down. If anyone is offended, I apologize for it. I know why it was run
at the time though."
Adlerstein: You said you apologized to the people who personally know her.
It's offensive to mankind to run pictures of victims of suicide, murder victims.
ICP: Watch Al
Jazeera, it's on all the time. Al Jazeera is showing footage from Somalia where
people killed and dead on the ground.
Adlerstein: Oh, great. Great example. There's a moral--
ICP: Are they
being thrown out of the building? They're not. There's not one standard here.
If you don't like Al Jazeera, you don't watch it. And if you don't like Inner
City Press, you don't have to read it. I want to deal with this correctly.
Adlerstein: So you didn't make a mistake.
ICP: What is
the ramification if I say that I do?
Adlerstein: You'll let me know whether you think you made a mistake. I'm not a
reporter, I don't give a damn.
journalist: It seems to me, if I may interject--
Adlerstein: I find it very cowardly that you won't take a position. Did you
make a mistake or not?
ICP: I took
the photograph down. You tell me what the ramification for answering is, and
I'll answer it. You seem to believe it is legitimate to try to throw a
journalist out for one story, and I think that is totally improper. I don't
think the UN gets to choose, based on content, who covers it and how they cover
it. I do not. And I find it outrageous
Adlerstein: Is it two stories that you need? Two stories are needed?
ICP: I don't
know, you tell me.
Adlerstein: You're saying one story is outrageous. Are two stories okay?
tried to get the Staff Union to support them. I'm not looking for support.
It's just that this is a free country. The White House doesn't throw out a
reporter on one story. The Federal Reserve doesn't do it. This place, maybe it
thinks it's exempt from those laws.
Adlerstein: Is that what you're saying, two stories is okay?
ICP: Write a
rule, and I'll comply with it. They've been trying to set up a process on how
to throw people out. And whatever the rule is, that will be fine. But they
don't have a rule. And you cannot just zero in on one story. You really
can't. You can try.
Adlerstein: That's what I'm asking.
ICP: I don't
know, I don't know what the rules are going to be. They're being negotiating
between UNCA and DPI. We had a meeting about it two weeks ago.
Adlerstein: Very cowardly. You won't account for yourself.
write a whole story about it tonight, and I'll say something about it. But I'm
going to write about this as well. And that's fine.
ASG Michael Adlerstein, with UN logo: "What should be
Adlerstein: About what?
this conversation. Why not? You tell me. And I will answer your questions, in
writing. And you can say whether it's cowardly or not... When somebody kills
themselves at the UN, the regular press corps can't get in here. This is one of
the reasons I covered it. I guarantee you -- for whatever you believe -- I
didn't come that day to cover it. I didn't want to cover it. I came to cover
the Kosovo meeting. But as a journalist, if I come in and there's a medical
examiner and people's hands are being bagged, I'm going to cover it. And many
people in this building have said to me 'please keep looking into that.' I
actually would rather not to.
journalist: What he did, in terms of reporting the story, I think is in the best
traditions of -- inadvertently, because it's outside his expertise -- crime
amazed. I had no idea that this was your view of the press. I had zero
Adlerstein: I haven't expressed any view of free press. I asked you whether
you made a mistake.
ICP: And you
said "would it take two stories to throw you out" and you said "you asked us a
lot of questions, what about you". This is a retaliatory thing. You are an
Adlerstein: I'm not saying anyone should be thrown out of here.
ICP: You said
two stories, throw you out.
Adlerstein: You said one story is not justified.
ICP: You said
how about two.
Adlerstein: How about two. What's the number?
ICP: You said
"what should be your punishment?" Most times, if an institution and an official
doesn't like coverage, like McCain in the New York Times, you write a letter.
That's what you do. You don't imply that you can throw somebody out because you
don't like the article.
journalist: You have to establish objective rules.
Adlerstein: I walked over here to find out what's going on, what's your
ICP: Have you
read Ms. Barcena's letter?
ICP: And she
has a conflict. She shouldn't be the one pushing this. She expressed deep
anger for me when I wrote about her getting a job for a friend of Ahlenius. And
so I don't think she should be the one making the UN's decisions on what to do
about this incident. Beyond taking down the photograph and running an apology,
I don't know what more they want. She should not be the one running it. She
has a personal motive.
Adlerstein: You're asking me right, I don't know.
ICP: I know
you're a high official.
Adlerstein: I have no idea whether she's written you a letter or not; I've
never seen a letter. I have no idea what you're talking about.
ICP: How did
you learn of this? Did you stumble across it?
Adlerstein: People are talking about it.
people talked to me who never even saw it. They heard from Barcena that it
showed the woman's face, and that's false. That's one of the reasons I didn't
want to take it down, because now they are trying to say that something was what
it wasn't. If the problem's the photo, it's down. She said to the Staff Union
that it showed the face. Now what am I supposed to do, show the photo again?
To show it doesn't? She knows it doesn't. She tried to stoke them up.
Ms. Barcena's letter is below. Beyond having incorrectly alleged that the photo
showed the decedent's face, she tried to enflame even OHRM staff on the fifth
floor to denounce Inner City Press based on articles not read, photos not seen,
because removed from
the Internet to placate her. Inner City Press was told by the spokesperson's
office that not only had USG Barcena written a letter, that the Department of
Public Information (apparently, the head of its Media Accreditation and Liaison
Unit) would also be writing a letter.
wonders if MALU wrote a letter to, for example, Al Jazeera, when in the wake of
the deadly bombing of the United Nations in Algiers in December, it placed
interactive poll which asked if people supported or opposed the bombing of the
UN. In that case, not only was no public or even to-file letter written by MALU
-- the media outlet was quickly awarded an exclusive interview with Ban Ki-moon,
and has been placed on the UN's in-house TV network. For the record, Inner City
Press supports Al Jazeera's right to freedom of the press. These freedoms must
be consistently and expansively applied.
And now, in full, USG Barcena's letter:
Subj: Re: Photo
has been removed from web
9:03:00 AM Eastern Standard Time
To: Inner City
Staff Union, Okabe, Akasaka, NambairV, Meyer
of many concerned staff from the Department of Management and myself, I want to
convey our complete shock and outrage at both the content of your 17 February
Inner City Press article ('Woman's Death on UN Lawn Leaves Questions Unanswered,
Photos Unexplained') and the accompanying photographs. We feel strongly that
the insensitive tone of the reporting and use of the pictures clearly
transgresses accepted boundaries of professional journalism particularly when
writing an article concerning a personal tragedy and when the appropriate
authorities were in site taking care of the situation.
also like to confirm to you that United Nations staff from OHRM, Security and
Safety and Facilities Management, and from WHO and International Computing
Center (ICC), as well as the New York City authorities, responded quickly,
professionally and with sensitivity and respect for the victim, her family and
colleagues. Correct procedures were followed in dealing with this very sad and
unfortunate incident, which brings pain to all of us. To insinuate otherwise is
simply false and irresponsible.
I take note that you decided to remove one of the pictures showing the staff
uncovered body in the your website. I hope this was done in consideration of the
feelings of the deceased's family, friends and colleagues beyond what Stephane
or Gary or myself.
regret this type of reporting particularly when dealing with a personal tragedy
that is so painful for colleagues and for the UN Family.
Department of Management
In fairness, we will let the
letter and exchange speak for themselves, other than to note as we must that the
claim about responding quickly was called into question by the 24 minute delay in
ambulance response to a journalist having a heart attack on February 21, click
for that story, which it seems the ASG and USG above may also contest and abhor,
but which is true.
We have heard from well-placed sources that the UN's Media
Accreditation and Liaison Unit of the Department of Public Information intends
on February 22 to send another letter, in an attempt to "build a file" in order
to throw Inner City Press out of the UN. But one might think that a unit charged
with ostensibly assisting the media might be more concerned that a reporter's
heart attack on the press floor of the UN on February 21 went unattended by NYC
emergency services personnel due, according to a journalist present, to
bureaucratic inspection of the ambulance that came, and seek to address that and
other real problems for the media -- and all who work in the UN -- rather than
purporting to micro-manage independent journalists' reports on the UN. To be
* * *
These reports are
usually also available through
Google News and on Lexis-Nexis.
here for a
AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army.
for an earlier
piece about the Somali National Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's
$200,000 contribution from an undefined trust fund.
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