Legal Threats to Press, Censorship Proposal in Memo to Ban, Navi Pillay
Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: Media Analysis
NATIONS, June 3 -- Questions are multiplying about the lack of
commitment to press freedom at the UN to its highest levels. The day
after UN Spokesperson Michele Montas confirmed her attendance at a
May 8 meeting regarding “reporting by the press,
particularly Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and Inner City
Press,” at which it was proposed to write “cease and desist”
and “letters before action," on June 3
Ms. Montas said these
statement were not in minutes but rather a memorandum submitted to
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon himself.
the UN's June 2
noon briefing, Inner City Press read to Ms Montas from the document
of the UN meeting proposing “with regard to Inner City Press…
complaining to Google News.” Video here,
from Minute 14:33. The
following day, Ms. Montas denied that was in the minutes or
memorandum, even as a proposal: "Montas also
denied Inner City
Press's report that the minutes indicate U.N. officials 'should
consider complaining to Google News.'"
Inner City Press
now publishes here online the relevant portion of the document,
prepared by the
UN Department of Management under Angela Kane, stating that
Akasaka, Ms. Montas, Ms. O'Brien, Mr. Meyers and I met on 8 May to
address inaccurate reporting by press, particularly Fox News, Wall
Street Journal, and Inner City Press, and their insistence on not
publishing our response clarifying UN's position.
propose writing to professional journalistic bodies which regulate
the journalists concerned as well as letters to the Editors with
copies to their Companies' Legal Counsel. With regard to Inner City
Press, we should also consider complaining to Google News (they host
Inner City Press) regarding consistent inaccurate reporting.
DPI gather sufficient examples of inaccurate reporting, we can
consider more formal legal responses such as 'cease and desist' or
'letters before action' sent by outside counsel."
to view the UN document, Page 1 Page 2
publishing the document, due to an already begun UN investigation or
"witch hunt" into who leaked it, Inner City Press is using
a photo of the pertinent portions of the page. While all three media
organizations are described as refusing to publish the UN's position,
Inner City Press puts online whatever responses the UN provides.
June 3, Inner
City Press asked three questions of Ms. Montas which
she promised to answer later but has not, including on Myanmar and Sri
Lanka. The alleged inaccuracies,
which the UN has not specified, seem to deal with an expose of the UN
Medical Service as using doctors not licensed in New York to
proscribe controlled substances, and with recent coverage of UN
withholding of casualty figures and satellite photos of the conflict
zone in Sri Lanka, for which Ban Ki-moon has been criticized not
in Inner City Press but by Human Rights Watch. Click here
for Inner City Press debate on this topic, on NYT.com
claims that Inner City Press does not have the
document, that the document does not propose the UN complaining to
Google, are thus factually
incorrect. Her statement that the memo
was to Ban Ki-moon himself mean that questions are raised about the
highest level of the Secretariat's compliance with Article 19 of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that
has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right
includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek,
receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and
regardless of frontiers."
an Under Secretary General of the UN, Angela Kane, convened a meeting
with two other USGs as well as the SG's spokesperson and Director of
Communications and proposed not only legal action against three media
organization, but to attempt constructive censorship of the third,
Inner City Press.
online publication, to target the
distribution mechanism which Google represent in 2009 is tantamount
to seeking to remove a publication from the global newsstand. It is
an inappropriate response to critical coverage, and seems to
contravene Article 19 of the UN's own Universal Declaration of Human
UN's Ban and HCHR Pillay: one gets memo
favoring censorship, then the other, with request to oppose it
City Press has submitted an
open letter to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay,
formally requesting her action:
High Commissioner Pillay:
I am an
independent journalist who covers the work of the UN system, most
recently accompanying and covering the Secretary General's visit to
Sri Lanka's internally displaced persons camps and "No Fire"
Zone, via fly-over. The UN's withholding of casualty figures and
satellite photos, and now its enabling of interment camps in
Vanuniya, troubles me, see e.g.
this letter, however, is to bring to your attention as the UN
system's final arbiter and expert on the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights a trend in which this Secretariat is veering from the
positions on freedom of the press required by the UDHR. Upon my
return from Sri Lanka to UN Headquarters I learned that three Under
Secretaries General, along with the Secretary General's Spokesperson
and Director of Communications, met on May 8 regarding “reporting
by the press, particularly Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and
Inner City Press,” at which it was proposed to write “cease and
desist” and “letters before action” and, “with regard to
Inner City Press… complaining to Google News.” Click
to view the document, Page 1 Page 2
from a UN document which I call or called minutes of the meeting, but
which UN Spokesperson Michele Montas has in an article published
today called a memorandum to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,525017,00.html
As an online
publication in 2009, for an organization like the UN to pressure
of its business partners like Google to, in essence, remove Inner
City Press from the global newsstand is tantamount to censorship. On
June 1, I wrote to the Spokesperson and the three USGs asking them to
above is consistent with press freedom, Article 19 and, here, the
First Amendment -- and also, for you, your previous career as a
journalist. I'd also like a comment, in light of the above, on the
UN’s previous denials of involvement in a complaining to Google
News and getting Inner City Press temporarily delisted. See,
of the USGs
responded. Nor had the Spokesperson, so at the UN noon briefing on
June 2 -- video here
from Minute 14:33, transcribed below with annotations for context -- I
her not only about the expulsion of an NGO from Sri Lanka, but also
Whether you participated in an 8 May meeting with Ms. Angela Kane and
certain others about how the UN would have a legal strategy on the
Wall Street Journal, Fox News and Inner City Press, including seeking
to de-list it from Google News?
Montas: Okay, Matthew, I just want to point out that I don’t have
to account to you about the meetings I participate in. I participate
in about seven meetings a day, okay. I don’t have any accounts to
give you about what was discussed in a specific meeting that
was held here at UN Headquarters!
I have seen the minutes, but I guess my question to you is simply,
before writing the article, how was the content of that meeting
consistent with Article 19 and the First Amendment and what Mr. Ban
said on 7 May about freedom of the press and of online media?
Those were discussions based on people who actually complained about
things that you wrote about. I am talking about what you wrote
concerning particularly the Medical Service where you really touched
upon people’s reputations without any proof!
The UN Medical Service story to which Ms. Montas referred in fact
contained ample proof, including a photograph of the log book in
which employees at the Medical Service signed out narcotics to
themselves. Three weeks after Inner City Press ran the story, the
UN's first request was that the photograph be taken off line. Inner
City Press immediately granted this request to remove the evidence,
or "proof," from the public domain, at the UN's request.
Now Ms. Montas claims there is no proof.
close observers have concluded that the vehemence of the denunciation
or attempt to intimidate is related to Inner City Press' critical
coverage of the UN's non-action against civilian death and internment
in Sri Lanka, including the UN's withholding of casualty figures and
Montas: And I want to underline the fact that whenever we have sent
to you or other media, some other media -– very few of them, we
have sent rectification saying this is untrue; this is what the truth
is. You don’t bother to print that.
This is patently untrue. In the case of the Medical Service story,
the UN provided no response until after Ms. Kane's press conference,
and when it did, Inner City Press immediately published the UN's
statement. Even Ms. Kane acknowledged that Inner City Press took down
the photograph of the log book -- the proof -- as soon as the UN
requested in, on a Saturday morning. Ms. Montas' public criticism
cannot be substantiated. In fact, it is her office which, as Inner
City Press specifies in week in review articles, refuses to answer
question even when they are posed publicly in the UN's noon briefing.
City Press: OIOS sent me something from Ms. Ahlenius that said that
they couldn’t verify the claims against the Medical Service because
of confidentiality. But Ms. Kane, here in this room, said that the
Medical Service was cleared, which isn’t even what Ms. Ahlenius
said. So, I did run it, I am always happy to run it, but I guess, I
don’t want to dominate this…
That has nothing to do with this. The fact that we get together, any
staff member, any senior adviser here, get together in a meeting and
discuss some specific claim, some specific allegation in some press
report, in some media, about people whose lives are affected by
media, and where issues of libel are discussed, I think it’s
something that is [inaudible].
It is interesting that Ms. Montas refers to the possibility of a
libel suit by the UN, which itself claims that it cannot be sued. As
exclusively reported by Inner City Press, earlier this year a UN
staff member had a fatal stroke in the basement of Headquarters and
waited an hour for an ambulance due to the failure of the UN's
systems for alerting NYC emergency services. While his survivors
expressed a desire to sue, it is the UN's position that it is immune.
Now the UN speaks of libel. As an aside, Inner City Press was
informed later on June 2 by staff in the unit where the man died that
since Inner City Press' coverage, and because of it, they are now
allowed to call 911 and not only the UN where there is an emergency.
City Press: [Since the minutes indicate] that the UN is seeking to
complain to Google News and to have Inner City Press removed, does
that confirm that previously when Inner City Press was removed that
the UN was behind it?
The UN had nothing to do with it.
Even if that were true, at the time when Inner City Press was, based
on anonymous complaint, removed from Google News for one week, Inner
City Press was told that the UN would never make such a complaint, to
stop implying that publicly, it could never come from the UN. Now
three UN Under Secretaries General discuss precisely this, without
objection. Did they do it in the past, or has the UN gotten even more
opposed to press freedom in the past year?
City Press: But this time the goal is to complain --
Nothing was decided. Absolutely nothing. Things were discussed
because of the fact that a number of allegations that you have
printed are erroneous, do not respect the facts, and…
the only example given by Ms. Montas was the Medical Service story,
which Inner City Press stands behind. For the UN to use the bully
pulpit of its media briefing room to harangue a reporter for
unspecified errors is itself abusive.
[inaudible] confirmed this.
Fox News ran the same story [inaudible].
May I finish, please?
I’m sorry, please.
Not only you do not respect the facts, and I think some of your
colleagues agree with me on this… not only you do not respect the
facts, you do not respect when we actually call you, call upon you
and we send a rectification. The third aspect of it all is that,
whenever I speak to you or anybody else speaks to you, what we have
is not a different approach, no! It is “I met so and so in the
hallway”, and that’s what appears in your blog, “and he told me
so and so”. I think this is, there are some definite ethics issues
Inner City Press' rule is that if a UN official says off the record,
it is respected -- often, Inner City Press choses not to continue to
listen to off the record presentations. At one stage Ms. Montas
sought to convene Inner City Press into her office for a discipline
session. Inner City Press reported the "invitation," which
was not off the record. The session was then canceled by Ms. Montas.
An entirely acceptable journalistic approach is, if you can't say it
on the record, don't say it. Journalistic errors such as Judith
Miller's of the New York Times' in the run up to the Iraq war were
caused by allow people with power to put out information off the
Montas: We have a press corps here, and unfortunately we don’t have
an ethics code the way a number of organizations, news organizations,
have. And the ethics code should also apply; a basic ethics code
should basically be applied.
Is the UN in any position to define what is acceptable journalism?
The UN allows a Special Representative of the Secretary General in
Somalia who has called for a "moratorium" on reporting of
the killing of civilians, and who most recently accused the Press of
being complicit in genocide for asking him to response to Oxfam's
testimony that the UN and UNDP support and pay police who commit
human rights violations. After his outburst, he was congratulated by
other UN media "professionals."
Since you actually talked to me about this and you mentioned in your
e-mail my own background as a journalist, I would say that what I
have read in your blog goes against many of the ethical values of
It was unclear that the UN's noon briefing was a venue for Ms.
Montas' personal views of acceptable journalism. Inner City Press
asked by her views by e-mail on June 1 precisely so that time
wouldn't be wasted in the UN's noon briefing. But Ms. Montas clearly
preferred to vent in public.
[inaudible] talking about Sri Lanka [inaudible]
I am not talking about Sri Lanka. I am talking in general.
Okay. Just a coincidence.
example, just after an Indian television journalist interviewed me at
the Security Council stakeout on June 1 about the Secretary General's
trip to and actions in Sri Lanka, the director of the UN's Media
Accreditation and Liaison Unit went over to the journalist and openly
urged them not to include or use what I said, which raised questions
about the UN's human rights compliance, see
Secretariat to be trying to censor independent media which has
inquired into and made public questions about the UN's withholding of
casualty figures and satellite photos, and now its enabling of
interment camps in Vanuniya, calls for action on your part, as the
UN's highest official on human rights including Article 19.
Russell Lee, Esq., Inner City Press
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