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UN Resists New Media, Minutes Show, as UNDP and WHO Refuse to Answer Questions

Byline: 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.

            While the 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.

            The UN 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.

            The World 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.

            Some 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

Inner City 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.

 Deputy Spokesperson:  Sure.

   A written answer was added to the UN's transcript, that

The Deputy Spokesperson later told the correspondent the following:

The United 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.

            This 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 state that

"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 accreditation...

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."

            It's 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 accountability reporting.

            While the 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.

At 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 said

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 Kemal Dervis, 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."

            In the 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 Myanmar and Georgia and, still, UNDP's biodiversity program in DPRK, these two are on deadline."

  Forty days later, Inner City Press has not received any answers from UNDP. Click here for 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 Somalia.

            UNDP's 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.

            Inner 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 over $700,000 on a vanity press book praising the agency's work.

            At the December 5 noon briefing, 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.

        This last 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 City Press.

            The 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 are doing."

            While the 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.

            In 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 protest 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.

            These 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 entanglements and hiring practices, inquires into which have already been rebuffed and the questioner attacked, click here for that story, and here for a letter from another UNCG meeting participant, Ban's chief of communications Michael Meyer, promoting Ban's work on Darfur and on global warming, and implying that inquiry into Ban's hiring of South Koreans may be racist or at least Euro-centric.

            On June 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 has

"described a 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."

            Neither 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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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540