On media freedom, United Nations plays by its own rules

Months of international crises raises the stakes for reporting on the UN, but investigative journalists remain without a right to information

From Ukraine to Syria to Gaza, a relentless summer of international strife is raising the stakes for the United Nations on the eve of its General Assembly session this week. In a rare move, President Barack Obama is personally chairing the Security Council to build support against terrorist groups like ISIS, all but guaranteeing the media spotlight and underscoring the central role of the UN, where the most powerful figures in the world flock for the yearly occasion of rubbing shoulders and brokering deals.

Yet the toughest stories to squeeze out of the UN are not just about crises discussed there, but investigations into the UN itself, where journalists enter an environment with different rules and procedures than any other government institution they might have covered.

The fact that the UN operates outside of local laws—its New York City headquarters are technically a separate territory—makes the work of journalists even more crucial as one of the organization’s few external checks and balances. Investigations into the institution have unearthed the likes of the failure of UN peacekeepers in Darfur and diplomats’ use of immunity to dodge parking tickets. But as with other mammoth institutions, investigative work is an uphill challenge, especially when there’s no recourse to freedom of information law.

“They are almost institutionally designed to only show what they want to show,” said Pamela Falk, president of the UN Correspondents Association and a CBS reporter at the UN for 13 years. “The immunity does give the UN impunity.”

In 2006, then-secretary general Kofi Annan pitched a plan to reform the sprawling global bureaucracy, which included a freedom of information office—a right to declassify documents and a formal process to release them to the public—in the wake of widespread corruption revelations by the UN in Iraq. Christopher Burnham, then the under secretary general for management and previously a member of the Bush administration, advocated for the policy.

Inner City Press, a blog covering the UN since 2006, reported that Burnham’s successor, Alicia Barcena, said it would be in place by the end of 2007. But the General Assembly never agreed on the scheme, and it was quietly shelved. “There were differing views among Member States about what constituted openness,” said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, in an email.

“You are dealing with an organization of states, the majority of which are not democracies, including a few which are highly repressive,” said Philippe Bolopion, a former UN correspondent for Le Monde, and current Human Rights Watch UN Director. “The ones that could apply pressure on the UN to become more transparent are governments, some of which could be greatly exposed if some of the positions they take privately were to be revealed.”

There is a flipside to this swarm of competing interests.

“It leaks like crazy,” said Colum Lynch, who covers the UN for Foreign Policy. “Once a document goes to the 15 [Security Council] members you can always get a leak. It ain’t hard.”

Unlike the two or three-party systems reporters face in statehouses, the UN has up to 193 countries privy to sensitive information, and everyone has an interest in revealing documents such as secret memos, internal cables and draft resolutions which are routinely passed around. Off the record, diplomats will give full emailed debriefs of closed-door meetings, said Lynch. Other representatives will even text updates to reporters mid-conference, said Falk.

The UN secretariat’s lack of enforcement power—the same reason they can’t force states to abide by press freedom policies—means they also can’t punish states for leaking documents. Hundreds of journalists, with a white P on their press passes, have bureaus on the UN campus, giving them free-roaming access to sources.

While part and parcel in the game of international diplomacy, this imperfect arrangement, heavily dependent on deep sourcing, increases the risk of an insider’s club between journalists and their sources. Yet other reporting avenues are limited. A financial disclosure system, for instance, requires high-level staff to declare interests, but public disclosure is optional (93 out of 153 officials released records last year).

At the same time, correspondents say that Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has been more closed to the press than predecessor Kofi Annan, bringing fewer reporters on trips with him, and limiting physical access to the area around the Security Council. “Nobody likes leaks, but Ban particularly doesn’t like leaks,” said Lynch.

Matthew Lee of Inner City Press continues to advocate for a systematic freedom of information policy, but admits that there is little binding pressure journalists can put on the UN legally. “Ultimately you end up making a moral argument, which is that more so than most governments, the UN is always pontificating about good governance and transparency,” he said. “That’s what I find so ironic.”

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Chris Ip is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisiptw. Tags: , ,