Resists New Media, Minutes Show, as UNDP and WHO Refuse to Answer Questions
Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: Media Analysis
UNITED NATIONS, July
28 -- In late June in Madrid, the head spokespeople for 37 UN agencies met and
planned how to best communicate the work of the UN to a worldwide audience.
While claiming to want to engage with new media, including blogs, a UN summary
of the meeting obtained by Inner City Press shows a proposal by at least some UN
agencies to exclude any media without a traditionally hierarchical editing
process -- that is, to exclude blogs and most participatory media.
minutes blandly record the UN Communication Group's intention to continue to
monitor the issue, multiple sources say, and experience confirms, that at least
three UN agencies at that time adopted a policy of no longer answering any
questions from Inner City Press, described by the
New York Times of April 30
as the only blog accredited at UN headquarters. So much for engagement with new
media, said one UN communications professional requesting anonymity in order not
to lose their job.
agencies which, since the June 21-22 meeting in Madrid, have refused to answer a
single question from Inner City Press including the UN Development Program and
the World Health Organization. UNDP, which is embroiled in scandals about its
close relations with regimes in North Korea, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Uganda, has also
taken to calling the editors of journalists who ask questions, ostensibly to
verify the reporter's assignment and deadline. Several reporters recount a
Catch-22 with UNDP in which a tight deadline results in no answer due to timing,
while a longer deadline results in no answer due to lack of immediacy.
Health Organization, which was identified in the July 22 New York Times as
having its vaccination funding diverted to military use in Ethopia's Ogaden
region, has refused to answer basic questions about its purported investigation
into the charges -- and about its participation in and positions adopted at the
UN Communications Group meeting in Madrid.
participants of the meeting contacted Inner City Press and, along with
requesting anonymity, warned about the naming-of-names at the meeting, and of
attempts at the meeting to deem bloggers, and even one particular blogger,
persona non grata at the UN agencies. At UN headquarters in New York on
July 2, Inner City Press asked Secretary
General Ban Ki-moon's deputy spokesperson
Press: I have heard about this meeting of the UN Communications Group in Madrid,
recently. Supposedly, among the things discussed was: What is a journalist? I
am wondering if you could confirm this meeting of the UN Communication Group,
and also give some kind of a readout, particularly on that topic, but also on
other topics discussed.
A written answer was added to the
Spokesperson later told the correspondent the following:
Nations Communications Group, which is composed of 40 United Nations system
entities, holds an internal annual meeting of heads of public information and
communications at rotating locations to discuss issues related to United Nations
information policies and programs. Thirty-seven United Nations entities
participated in this year's meeting, which was hosted by the World Tourism
Organization in Madrid. The main focus of this year's annual meeting was to
discuss the "One UN" initiative and its impact on United Nations public
information and communications at the global and local levels... The United
Nations Communications Group this year also discussed the phenomenon of new
media, including webzines, podcasts, wikis and blogs, and how to engage and use
these new media, together with traditional media, in communicating the work of
the United Nations to a worldwide audience.
bland summary is contradicted not only by accounts of participants in the
meeting, but even by the more diplomatic minutes of the meeting, which Inner
City Press obtained last week. The minutes came accompanied by a three-page
cover letter from the head of the UN's Department of Public Information (DPI)
Kiyo Akasaka mentioning the need "to review guidelines for managing relations
with new Internet-based media."
Mr. Akasaka has told UN correspondents he views his job as "protecting the
Secretary-General," which may or may not run into conflict with providing (new)
media access to the work of the UN. A written request to Mr. Akasaka to release
a basic document entitled
List of Staff of the UN Secretariat,
and to follow through on previous UN commitments to implement a Freedom of
Information procedure, have yet to be acted on. The June 21-22 UNCG minutes
"In regard to new media, UN Headquarters
provides explicit criteria for the accreditation of webzines. It was agreed that
it was important for the United Nations family to engage with all forms of new
media, but that some, such as blogs, presented particular challenges for
UNCG members stressed the importance in
accreditation decisions on the need, among other evaluation tools, to ascertain
that there is an established editorial process in the media organization
concerned that ensures copy goes through an editing process and which provides
recourse to the UN to respond to factual inaccuracies, misrepresentations, etc.
Consideration could be given to include alongside published accreditation
criteria a statement that the respective organization would hold accredited
media accountable to a journalistic code of conduct."
worth noting by contrast that the
Free Flow of Information Act of 2007,
pending in the U.S. Congress, defines journalism as "the gathering, preparing,
collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting, or publishing
of news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or
other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public." The UN's
focus on its own "recourse" is self-serving and ignores the structure of
independent media, not only now but decades ago for example in I.F. Stone's
June minutes conclude only that the "question of explicit criteria for
accrediting blogs should be kept under review," sources say that UNDP and WHO
moved beyond review to adopt a policy of not answering bloggers' questions.
the UN, new media is being resisted (Photo credit: Mark Garten, UN)
The reference to
limiting access to media organizations who accept some UN "code of conduct" was
echoed in the UN noon briefing of July 19, when in response to complaints about
limited media access to Ban Ki-moon, spokesperson Michele Montas
Ms. Montas: I would like just to attract
your attention to the code of conduct still in effect. You have received it by
mail, it is on the table right here. This has been a standing agreement between
UNCA and DPI since 1983. The code of conduct remains effective until UNCA and
DPI have completed a review, and any agreed change will be communicated to any
media representatives. If you have any questions or input for the review of the
code, please contact [UNCA or DPI] by 17 August 2007...
Inner City Press: I think the person who
walked out isnít here. I think, as he walked out, he said something like: 'This
is a joke,' and he walked out. And I think his perception was that he wasn't
called on, based on the question he was going to ask. So I think, in the code
of conduct, it also says, all correspondents have a right to ask questions.
Spokesperson: From what I gather, I
answer all the questions that you have. In the case of the press conference of
the Secretary-General, I had 20 hands up of questions that could not be
answered, because, even though the press conference lasted more than an hour --
the Secretary-General has said 45 minutes, he accepted to stay beyond that --
but he has other things to do. I cannot keep him here 2 hours until all the
questions are answered. What I can say, I do not prejudge the questions of any
correspondent. Thank you very much.
Inner City Press: Is there... One way is
maybe get him to do... not have such a long gap between the press conferences.
Spokesperson: He has promised to do a
press conference a month.
Whether Ban Ki-moon
follows through and hold monthly press conferences has yet to be seen. The
third-highest UN official, UNDP Administrator
went sixteen months between press conferences, and has now gone seven more
months without holding a press conference in UN headquarters, right across the
street from his office. This and UNDP's decision not to answer new media
questions and to call freelancers' editors, call into question UNDP's role as
lead UN agency in the "One UN" plan, also called "system-wide coherence."
run-up to the June 21-22 meeting, Inner City Press sought an answer from UNDP
Administrator Kemal Dervis, as to whether the presentation he had just made on
June 18 to his agency's Executive Board members meant that copies of audits
would be made available to them.
"I am not answering
any of your questions," Mr.
Dervis said, and walked away.
Inner City Press e-mailed the questions to UNDP's Communications Office, headed
by David Morrison, who was a participant in the above-summarized June UNCG
meeting. The June 18 email also posed a
"question asked twice of the OSSG, about
all funding of or through UNDP to Somalia's Transitional Federal Institutions
and its police or security forces, including any funding on behalf of donors
(please name them). Separately, please describe any change in employment status
of UNDP head of budgets Jocelline Bazile-Finley, on information and belief
implemented last week by the head of UNDP's Bureau of Management
Akiko Yuge and /
or Ad Melkert,
and any reasons for such change. While there are other questions, including the
outstanding ones about
Georgia and, still, UNDP's biodiversity program in DPRK, these two are on
Forty days later,
Inner City Press has not received any answers from UNDP. Click
this correspondent's story on funding for the Somalia National Reconciliation
Congress, written for
Reuters' AlertNet despite
UNDP's repeated refusal to answer about its funding of security forces in
lack of press availability and accountability began long before the June 2007
UNCG meeting. In mid-2006, Inner City Press started asking questions about UNDP
at the noon briefing at UN headquarters, in particular about UNDP's role in
funding forcible disarmament in Uganda's Karamoja region, in which villages were
burned down and Karimojong pastoralists were shot and in some cases killed.
Then-spokesman Stephane Dujarric said repeated, "Ask UNDP." But from UNDP there
were few answers. Eventually, UNDP said it would discontinue
funding of the controversial disarmament
program -- providing this news
not to Inner City Press, which had questioned the agency about its funding for
weeks, but to another news outlet.
City Press launched a series of articles examining UNDP's activities in Russia,
India and Central Europe, and its use of public funds, including spending
vanity press book praising the agency's
asked a follow-up question, and the spokesman claimed that UNDP
has a good whistle-blower protection scheme in place:
Inner City Press: Yesterday I asked you
about the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). I did receive a response
that UNDP paid $567,000 to produce the book. But Iíve also gotten a message
that you've gotten as well from UNDP, complaining about what's essentially a
book review, saying that reporting on what employees of UNDP say is somehow
reprehensible and asking to speak to my superiors. As a UN agency, is this an
appropriate use of funds? Can you find out if these are core funds meant to
assist low-income world citizens and also whether that's appropriate press
relations because my intention is to ask you questions about UNDP from now on.
Spokesman: ...You have printed on your
website, in full, emails that may or may not be from UNDP staffers airing
grievances. Some of them are slanderous to a number of UNDP staffers. That is
obviously your right, but you may also want to extend the same courtesy to UNDP
by publishing, in full, their responses to you, notably on the book. I think it
is totally appropriate for a UN agency to commission a book about its
activities. As they told you, the author had full editorial freedom in writing,
in researching and writing the book. Obviously, there is a very good system in
place at UNDP on whistle-blowing, through which staff can air their grievances.
statement would take on a certain irony in mid-2007 when the UNDP whistleblower
retaliation scandal hit the pages of not only the Wall Street Journal, but also
The Economist, AP, and, in an exclusive
interview with the whistleblower, Inner
back-and-forth in December was put to rest, to his credit, by then-Spokesman
Stephane Dujarric in a "note
to correspondents" read out at the December 12 noon briefing:
"some of you may have noticed the
atmosphere in these briefings this past week or so has sometimes gotten a little
unpleasant and a little more tense than we would like it to be. I hope you all
know how much my office tries to show you the respect that all of you deserve
for your professionalism, and in particular Matthew, because I had singled you
out, I wanted you to know that, despite a few heated words last week, that we do
appreciate the work you do as a journalist, and since you've come here, you've
made it your business to pursue topics that might otherwise be ignored. So, let
me assure all of you that, even when we may have a different opinion than you
about the way a topic is covered and has been dealt with, we respect what you
pursuits have continued, as of June 2007, far from "appreciation," the UN
Communications Group is monitoring cracking-down on independent journalism.
Things have reached the point where two major UN agencies, UNDP and the World
Health Organization, feel they can without repercussions adopt a policy of not
answering any questions from particular journalists, even if they are accredited
at UN headquarters. At headquarters, on a sample day last week, Inner City Press
ran an exclusive report on the Security Council's back-room maneuvering about
the breakaway Abkhazia region of the Republic of Georgia, and also posed four of
the only five questions asked of the UN's envoy to Nepal.
as it turns out, UNDP has undermined the peace process by blithely put the
peace process in jeopardy by handing out manuals about disarmament in Sudan to
Maoists who have not agreed to disarm, only to "weapons separation and
monitoring." The UN's envoy to Nepal Ian Martin, in response to Inner City
Press' questions, said that the Maoists are "allergic" to the word disarmament,
and that "a UNDP official" passed the disarmament survey to a Maoist commander.
The result of UNDP's blithe spreading of inapposite "best practices" was a
by Maoist commander Prachanda that the UN is trying to weaken the Maoists in
advance of the election now scheduled for November 22. And what has UNDP had to
say about its foul-up? We don't know, as UNDP does not answer any questions.
questions, like lack of accountability in WHO's vaccination funding in Ethiopia,
and UNDP's relations with dictatorial regimes in Myanmar and Zimbabwe, are
"topics that might otherwise be ignored." They are topics that, apparently, UNDP
and WHO want to be ignored. The rest of the UN system, under new
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, appears to be moving in that direction, if the
June 21-22 UN Communications Group meeting is any guide. The issue which this
new UN administration is most touchy about is Ban's Korean
hiring practices, inquires into which have already been rebuffed and the
questioner attacked, click
that story, and here for a
another UNCG meeting participant, Ban's chief of communications Michael Meyer,
promoting Ban's work on
and implying that inquiry into Ban's hiring of South Koreans may be racist or at
25, Inner City Press asked WHO to explain who will investigate the charges that
its vaccination funding in Ethiopia is put to military use. The New York Times
scheme with a United Nations polio program, which was corroborated by two former
administrators in the Ethiopian government and a Western humanitarian official,
in which military commanders gave prized jobs as vaccinators to militia
fighters, and in the end, much of the polio vaccine was never distributed. 'Army
commanders are using the polio money to pay their people, who don't pass out the
vaccines, so the disease continues and the payments continue,' said Mr. Kalif.
'It's the perfect system.' United Nations officials in Geneva said they did not
know whether that was happening, but that they would investigate."
Inner City Press
asked "what steps WHO has taken and will take to investigate the allegations
concerning the WHO-administered polio vaccination programs," and also asked:
"on DPR Korea, could you describe WHO's
current programs and spending, whether WHO works or would work in all parts of
the country, and whether any 'audit' has been held since January 19, 2007?
Finally, could you describe WHO's participation in the UN Communications Group
meeting in Madrid on June 21-22, 2007, particularly on Item 6 / 'new media.' Who
attended for WHO, what position did or will they take on these issues, and what
update to the June 21-22 discussion can you provide? The Ethiopia question is
timely and on deadline, the UNCG question is second-most timely, the DPR Korea
question slightly longer-term."
WHO's head spokesperson Christine McNab lead spokesperson, who was present at
the June UNCG meetings, nor two of her assistants to whom Inner City Press also
directed the questions, have provided any answer to these questions in the five
days since. So much for deadlines. So much for the UN engaging with new media.
This is a series that will be continued.
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