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UN Mulls Banning Bloggers, Leaked Minutes Reveal, Fearing Coverage Not Easily Controlled

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press: Media Analysis

NEW YORK, July 29 -- The United Nations says it wants to engage with bloggers, but only if it can control them. Those it cannot control, it wants to exclude, meeting minutes obtained by Inner City Press reveal.

   At least three UN agencies have in the interim adopted policies of not answering questions from bloggers, no matter how widely they're read. From the top of the UN's headquarters building, it's a world of paranoia, a desire to turn back the clock of a type that usually proves fruitless.

            In late June in Madrid, the spokespeople for 37 UN agencies met and, according to internal minutes leaked to Inner City Press, agreed that it is "important for the United Nations family to engage with all forms of new media, but that some, such as blogs, present particular challenges for accreditation."

            The UN limits access to its buildings and press conferences to those reporters it accredits. In April of this year, the New York Times reported that Inner City Press is, for now, the only accredited blogger at the UN. There have been several threats to revoke accreditation, based on inconvenient questions about the UN's role in the torching of villages in Uganda and the Congo, its standardless engagement with corporations and its use of funds to promote or spin its work.

            Having been warned about the exclusion talk at the Madrid meeting, Inner City Press asked about it at the July 2 UN noon briefing, and got a canned answer so incomplete as to be misleading. According to the later-obtained internal minutes, at the UN Communications Group meeting a strategy emerged:

"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."

            The proposal, then, is to exclude any reporter who is not subject a traditionally hierarchical editing process -- that is, to exclude blogs and most participatory media. The policy would exclude pre-Internet journalists like I.F. Stone as well. So much for engaging with new media. This sounds more like a separation leading to divorce.

A (different)UN meeting (Madrid photos not yet leaked) -- "Bloggers must be controlled," UN and Sudan agree

            The UN Charter begins with the ringing phrase, "We the peoples." The issues of many people, not deemed important by the corporate and state media which predominate at UN headquarters, are only covered by smaller, Internet-based publications. To some, the UN's now-expressed desire for "recourse" and a code of conduct smacks of code words for censorship in such countries as Egypt and Sudan, whose crackdowns on bloggers have extended to imprisonment and expulsion.

            The minutes came accompanied by a three-page cover letter from the head of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's Department of Public Information, 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 has already run into conflict with providing media access to the work of the UN.  Inner City Press' 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.

            So far, the issue which Ban Ki-moon is most touchy (some say, paranoid) include his 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, promoting Ban's also-questioned work on Darfur and on global warming.)

            Things have reached the point where two major UN agencies, the World Health Organization and the UN Development Program, feel they can without repercussions adopt a policy of not answering any questions from particular journalists, even if they are accredited at UN headquarters and also write for more traditional media. 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. Earlier in the year, UNDP's excuse for not answering was that it was too busy dodging questions about its operations in North Korea. Now there is a policy of non-response, no matter how under-reported the topic.

            At UN 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, including about UNDP

            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 in the words of previous UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric, "topics that might otherwise be ignored." They are topics that, apparently, WHO and UNDP and perhaps the entire UN under Ban Ki-moon want to be ignored. But will independent media, representing "we the peoples," allow this old-school exclusion?

* * *

Click here for a longer version of the above, with more quotes and links. Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about the National Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's $200,000 contribution from an undefined trust fund, while UNDP won't answer.

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

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