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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.

   We begin 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 and 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 interchange.

            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 preserve evidence.

"I've heard 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."

ASG Michael 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.

ASG Michael 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.

ASG Michael Adlerstein:  So you didn't make a mistake.

ICP:  What is the ramification if I say that I do?

ASG Michael Adlerstein:  You'll let me know whether you think you made a mistake.  I'm not a reporter, I don't give a damn. 

Other journalist:  It seems to me, if I may interject--

ASG Michael 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

ASG Michael Adlerstein:  Is it two stories that you need?  Two stories are needed? 

ICP:  I don't know, you tell me. 

ASG Michael Adlerstein:  You're saying one story is outrageous.  Are two stories okay? 

ICP:  They 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.

ASG Michael 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.

ASG Michael 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. 

ASG Michael Adlerstein:  Very cowardly.  You won't account for yourself.

ICP:  I'll 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 your punishment?"

ASG Michael Adlerstein:  About what?

ICP:  This, 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.

Other 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 reporting. 

ICP:  I'm amazed.  I had no idea that this was your view of the press.  I had zero idea...

ASG Michael 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 official here. 

ASG Michael Adlerstein: I'm not saying anyone should be thrown out of here.

ICP:  You said two stories, throw you out.

ASG Michael Adlerstein: You said one story is not justified.

ICP:  You said how about two.

ASG Michael 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.

Other journalist: You have to establish objective rules. 

ASG Michael Adlerstein: I walked over here to find out what's going on, what's your position. 

ICP:  Have you read Ms. Barcena's letter?

ASG Michael Adlerstein:  No.

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. 

ASG Michael Adlerstein:  You're asking me right, I don't know. 

ICP:  I know you're a high official. 

ASG Michael 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?

ASG Michael Adlerstein:  People are talking about it. 

ICP:  Many 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.

    One 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 online an 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

Date: 2/21/2008 9:03:00 AM Eastern Standard Time

From: Alicia Barcena

To: Inner City Press

CC: Dujarric, Staff Union, Okabe, Akasaka, NambairV, Meyer

    On behalf 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. 

    I would 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.    

     I truly regret  this type of reporting particularly when dealing with a personal tragedy that is so painful for colleagues and for the UN Family.


Alicia Barcena
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 here 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 continued.

* * *

These reports are usually also available through Google News and on Lexis-Nexis.

Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Click here for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece about the Somali National Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's $200,000 contribution from an undefined trust fund.  Video Analysis here

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