Journalism vs. the UN Security Council: Round 1?

There are currently thirty-eight active armed conflicts in the world. But when Japanese UN ambassador and Security Council president Yukio Takasu recently gave a press conference announcing the United Nations Security Council’s agenda for the next month, none of them received as much attention as an emerging dispute between the UN and its journalistic corps.

On Monday, Takasu was bombarded with nearly ten minutes of questions and comments on the UNSC’s decision to bar journalists from the corridor outside the new Council chamber. At the Council’s old location, currently under renovation, journalists were limited to a roped-off area next to the consultation rooms, the suite adjacent to the Council chamber where delegates and diplomats conduct meetings that are closed to the press. While some of the UNSC consultations in the main Council chamber are actually open to journalists, the Council suite is where diplomats can meet without any outside scrutiny. These meetings are where much of the UN’s real action goes down, and journalists’ ability to talk to diplomats in the area immediately next to the suite is a crucial means of maintaining the Council’s transparency. For the journalists who aren’t allowed inside the suite, the corridor is the closest they can get to closed-door, high-level discussions on some of the most explosive issues on earth.

Journalists attending the first session at the Council’s interim location in the UN basement on Monday found themselves barred from the hallway in front of the Council chamber and the consultation suite. Journalists couldn’t even see who was entering and leaving the UNSC.

Several of the UN press corps’ most respected members, including The New York Times’s Neil MacFarquhar, the AP’s Edith Lederer, and Bloomberg News’s Bill Varner spoke out against the new restrictions during Monday’s press conference—one correspondent struggled to squeeze in a question about Afghanistan while colleague after colleague voiced displeasure at their collective ban from the Security Council. Several said that the new arrangements were an unnecessary attack on the press by an organization that upholds freedom of expression in its founding documents.

Takasu blamed the new restrictions on the challenges posed by ongoing renovations to the UN complex, but he conceded that the announcement took him by surprise—the phrase “I didn’t know about it, and you didn’t know about it” was repeated about a half-dozen times during the press conference. But Innercity Press blogger Matthew Lee reported that a UNSC source said the renovation was little more than a pretext for getting journalists as far away from the Council as justifiably possible. “The UN representative said that Council members complained of ‘involuntary interaction’ with the press,” Lee wrote.

In a letter to Takasu (and CC’d to Ban Ki-Moon, General Assembly president Ali Treki, and the missions of the five permanent members of the Security Council), the UN Correspondents Association alleged that the Council was more intent on exiling journalists than figuring out a way around the UN headquarters’ space restrictions. “We understand that several permanent members of the Security Council voiced their concerns about press access to delegations and support reducing our access under the guise of improving their delegates’ “safety,’” the letter reads. “Our position is clear. Any attempt to use the move and/or safety concerns as a pretext to institute unprecedented and unnecessary limitations on press access to the delegations is unacceptable to UNCA members.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” The journalists covering the UN may now think that “everyone” no longer includes them.

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Armin Rosen is a former CJR intern.