Wednesday is World Press Freedom Day, an annual event celebrating the media’s vital role in a free society.
But there isn’t much reason to celebrate.
The United Nations (UN), the hypocritical host of the event, has become a global menace to freedom of the press. In fact, the organization frequently engages in extraordinary measures to silence the media, stifle press freedom, and avoid transparency and accountability.
In recent months, the UN and its agencies ejected members of the press from open meetings, repeatedly refused to make top officials available to the media, blocked reporters’ access to documents, punished internal whistleblowers, failed to adopt meaningful freedom of information guidelines, and conducted an increasing number of its substantive negotiations in private.
Last November, members of the media were improperly banned from a meeting hosted by the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the UN’s anti-smoking department.
I happened to be one of the credentialed journalists in India writing about the event. My colleagues and I were stunned that a UN agency would prohibit the media from covering a legislative meeting that effected tax rates, health policy and trade regulations for more than 180 nations
When I attempted to continue doing my job of reporting on the event, I was attacked by six guards who dragged me from the convention hall, leaving bruises on my back, arms and shoulders.
Moments later, the UN official responsible for ordering the guards to physically eject me slapped the arm of a female Canadian reporter, then yelled at her, mocked her, and attempted to wrestle a microphone from her hand as she tried to interview him.
One of the meeting’s delegates later admitted that journalists were banned and violently removed from the meeting because, “We don’t want people to know what we’re doing.”
Unfortunately, such assaults on the media by the UN have become commonplace. Guards also recently banned reporters from an open meeting involving the UN Secretary General and Peacekeeping commanders at the UN’s New York City headquarters.
The organization regularly refuses to approve media credentials by journalists who are considered too critical of the UN and its agencies – and when the UN does allow reporters to cover an event, they often are prohibited from obtaining needed access or useful information.
For example, World Health Organization (WHO) Director–General Margaret Chan refused to speak to the media at the most recent UN World Health Assembly in Geneva. Herve Ladsous, the former UN head of Peacekeeping Operations, prevented reporters from filming a public press briefing in Sudan by obstructing cameras with file folders before eventually cancelling the event. A reporter who pointed out flaws with the WHO’s response to the Ebola crises was blacklisted; UN officials blocked her from receiving email updates about the WHO’s Ebola efforts and refused to acknowledge her questions and interview requests.
The UN has even gone so far as to coerce news websites to remove unflattering stories from their sites, as well as condemn a whistleblower who informed journalists that UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic were systematically raping children as young as eight.
Despite repeated promises to become more transparent and accountable, the UN and many of its agencies refuse to implement basic freedom of information laws that are commonplace in more than 115 countries. As a result, it’s nearly impossible to expose corruption, fraud and abuse of tax dollars by UN officials.
These and numerous other attacks against press freedom and transparency by the UN are a clear indication the organization needs to redouble its commitment the media and the public.
The UN should start by televising all public meetings, opening its events to the press, and ratifying freedom of information guidelines so the press and the public have access to the types of documents, correspondences, and budgetary information already made available by governments throughout the majority of the world.
For far too long, the UN has hypocritically failed to live up to the standards of press freedom it expects from its member states. This World Press Freedom Day, the UN should stop being a threat to press freedom and, instead, behave as an example to countries working to nurture transparency and freedom of the press.
Drew Johnson is the National Director of Protect Internet Freedom and a Senior Scholar at the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.