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UN's Legal Threats to Press, Censorship Proposal in Memo to Ban, Navi Pillay Asked to Act

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: Media Analysis

UNITED 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.

   At 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

"Mr. 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.

"We 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.

"Should 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."

Click here to view the UN document, Page 1  Page 2

    In 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.

   On 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 only in Inner City Press but by Human Rights Watch. Click here for Inner City Press debate on this topic, on

     Ms. Montas' quoted 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

"Everyone 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."

   Here, 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.

   As an 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 Rights.

UN's Ban and HCHR Pillay: one gets memo favoring censorship, then the other, with request to oppose it

  According, Inner City Press has submitted an open letter to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, formally requesting her action:

June 3, 2009

Dear 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.

   The purpose of 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 here to view the document, Page 1  Page 2

  These quotes are 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.,2933,525017,00.html

As an online publication in 2009, for an organization like the UN to pressure one 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

explain how the 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,,2933,331106,00.html And

   None 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 asked her not only about the expulsion of an NGO from Sri Lanka, but also

Q: 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?

Spokesperson 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!

Question: 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?

Spokesperson: 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!

Annotation: 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.

Several 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 satellite photographs.

Spokesperson 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.

Annotation: 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.

Inner 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…

Spokesperson: 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].

Annotation: 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.

Inner 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?

Spokesperson: The UN had nothing to do with it.

Annotation: 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?

Inner City Press: But this time the goal is to complain --

Spokesperson: 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…

Annotation: 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.

Question: [inaudible] confirmed this.

Spokesperson: …and it’s…

Question: Fox News ran the same story [inaudible].

Spokesperson: May I finish, please?

Correspondent: I’m sorry, please.

Spokesperson: 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 involved here.

Annotation: 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 record.

Ms. 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.

Annotation: 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."

Question: [inaudible]

Spokesperson: 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 journalism.

Annotation: 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.

Question: [inaudible] talking about Sri Lanka [inaudible]

Spokesperson: I am not talking about Sri Lanka. I am talking in general.

Correspondent: Okay. Just a coincidence.

   But as simply one 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

   For the UN 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.

Awaiting your action,

Matthew Russell Lee, Esq., Inner City Press
Office at UN: Room S-453A, UN HQ, NY NY 10017
Desk: 212-963-1439

  Watch this site.

  Click here for an Inner City Press YouTube channel video, mostly UN Headquarters footage, about civilian deaths in Sri Lanka.

Click here for Inner City Press' March 27 UN debate

Click here for Inner City Press March 12 UN (and AIG bailout) debate

Click here for Inner City Press' Feb 26 UN debate

Click here for Feb. 12 debate on Sri Lanka

Click here for Inner City Press' Jan. 16, 2009 debate about Gaza

Click here for Inner City Press' review-of-2008 UN Top Ten debate

Click here for Inner City Press' December 24 debate on UN budget, Niger

Click here from Inner City Press' December 12 debate on UN double standards

Click here for Inner City Press' November 25 debate on Somalia, politics

and this October 17 debate, on Security Council and Obama and the UN.

* * *

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

Feedback: Editorial [at]

UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

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Other, earlier Inner City Press are listed here, and some are available in the ProQuest service, and now on Lexis-Nexis.

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