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UN Refuses To Explain Withholding Reports, Gets Scribes to Defend It

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, April 20 -- Confronting the UN's practice of withholding information from the public, including its own reports, for days while making it selectively available to some, on April 15 Inner City Press wrote a story and then asked the UN about the issue.

  Tellingly, rather than explain, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's spokesman Martin Nesirky told Inner City Press, I think you are aware of the distinction, and I dont intend to go into that here.

  The question is, why are reports made available to some in paper form before the digital file is put online through the UN Document System, ODS? Clearly the paper copies are printed from a digital file. So why withhold it?

   Inner City Press, like the Free UN Coalition for Access, is for due process rights for journalists, but does not believe that the media should be in the business of withholding, or supporting the withholding or delaying of information to the public.

   This came up recently on the annual Western Sahara issue, when Ban's (and French chief of Peacekeeping Herve Ladsous') report on the MINURSO mission was reported on by Reuters and notably Agence France Presse, but not available to people and even journalists elsewhere.

Inner City Press received many requests for the report and got to wondering: why hasn't the UN just put it online? In this case, it allowed European and French media to pre-spin the report.

So the Free UN Coalition for Access raised the issue in writing to Nesirky and the Department in charge of UN documents, and at the April 16 noon briefing Inner City Press asked:

Inner City Press: I also wanted to know whether the report, for example, on Western Sahara, and other reports, are they put online on UN documents system when they are legally available to be given or is there some lull, and if so, what explains that lull? ...Paper copies of some of these reports are available as much as two days before they go online, so since it seems to me that paper copies probably are a printout of the digital file, does it take the UN two days to put a digital file so what explains the up to 48-hour delay between printing out a digital file and actually just putting a digital file in the UN documents system?

Spokesperson Nesirky: I think you are aware of the distinction, Matthew, and I dont intend to go into that here. Whats your question on the CAR?

  While Inner City Press wrote of but didn't push the issue in that briefing, instead as FUNCA on April 18 putting the question to the head of the Department of Public Information who has, as of this writing on April 20, yet to respond, a letter did go in on the topic to Nesirky and DPI.

  The letter, apparently not publicly released on UNCA's website or glassed in bulletin board and so put online here, was from the UNCA Executive Committee ostensibly presided over by Pamela Falk of CBS TV News but which is dominated by the wire services which benefit from the UN's withholding of information from the public: Reuters represented by Louis Charbonneau, AFP represented by Tim Witcher, and others.

The UNCA letter, dated April 17 after the April 16 noon briefing exchange quoted above, says:

The U.N. Correspondents Association's Executive Committee is writing to express its support for the continued use of the 'Gray Lady' -- a shelf used to make U.N. reports, calendars and other documents available to reporters interested in them. In addition to the U.N.'s online presence, the 'Gray Lady' has been a useful way to distribute all kinds of documents rapidly to the U.N. press corps. We hope the tradition will continue. The volume of printed matter involved is minimal so there is no reason to abandon a tradition that has proven to be extremely helpful for U.N. reporters over the years.

   While this letter, and the sequence in time, speak for themselves -- can you say, UN's Censorship (and Withholding) Alliance? -- we will have more on this issue. Watch this site.

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