External Affairs

UN Shaky on Journalists’ Right to Information

To promote transparency, the UN has proposed a Freedom of Information Act to help journalists access information, along with the creation of a UN special envoy to ensure the safety of journalists worldwide.

At least 700 journalists have been killed worldwide in the past decade, the vast majority of which go unresolved. Credit: Reuters

At least 1,189 journalists have been killed worldwide since 1992, the vast majority of which go unresolved. Credit: Reuters

United Nations: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, one of the strongest advocates of press freedom, is facing two politically-sensitive issues which are beyond his decision-making jurisdiction: a proposal for a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) aimed at providing journalists with the right to access information, and the creation of a UN Special Envoy ensuring the safety of journalists worldwide.

Asked about the FOIA, UN deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq told the Inter Press Service (IPS): “The secretary-general supports the idea of transparency. But this would be an issue for member states.”

Under applicable staff regulations and UN policies, disclosure statements are confidential and will be accessible to, and used by the secretary-general, the ethics office or by offices or persons specifically authorised in writing by the secretary-general, according to the UN.

Still, the Paris-based UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), which is mandated to oversee press freedom, defines Freedom of Information (FOI) as the right to access information held by public bodies.

According to UNESCO, the FOI is an integral part of the fundamental right of freedom of expression, as recognised by Resolution 59 of the UN General Assembly adopted in 1946, as well as by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which states that the fundamental right of freedom of expression encompasses the freedom to “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

FOI has also been enshrined as part of “freedom of expression” in other major international instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and the American Convention on Human Rights (1969), says UNESCO.

Asked about the proposal for a UN special envoy to deal with the safety of journalists, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told IPS , “In order to appoint such a person, the general assembly or the security council would have to give the secretary-general a mandate.”

“I know that a number of non-governmental organisations have spoken to member states about the drafting of such a resolution,” he added.

But since most member states remain undecided, there has been little progress on either of the two proposals, according to diplomatic sources.

In a letter to the secretary-general, a coalition of over 100 NGOs has said, a special envoy, if approved by the general assembly, “would bring added attention to the risks faced by journalists and, by working closely with the secretary-general, would have the political weight and legitimacy to take concrete action to protect journalists and to hold UN agencies accountable for integrating the action plan into their work.”

The media and human rights organisations in the coalition include the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Freedom House, Index on Censorship, International Federation of Journalists, Media Watch and World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.

Asked if there are any member states who have openly declared their support for the proposal for a special envoy, Delphine Halgand, US director for the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), told IPS: “Yes, we met a lot of member states these last few months.”

“A permanent group of friends of UN ambassadors was created in spring and are now working continuously on the proposal”. This group is co-chaired by France, Greece and Lithuania. “And that’s an important step.”

Spain declared its support publicly but many others have supported it in private, Halgand said.

Ian Williams, UN correspondent for Tribune and a senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, told IPS  that while impunity is one of the managerial prerogatives of senior UN officials, freedom of information will be honoured as much in the breach as the observance—whatever the official policy.

Time and time again the response of UN bodies like the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) to the release of embarrassing information has been to launch an investigation into who leaked the news, he noted.

“And it has not been to honour them for efforts for FOI. Nonetheless, it should be repeated as often as possible to remove any excuses,” he added.

“The Haitian cholera debacle should be a warning that keeping the lid on often just builds up steam and causes explosions,” said Williams, who was president of the UN Correspondents’ Association (UNCA) in 1995 and 1996 and who is planning to release his next book titled UNtold: the Real Story of the UN.

But even then, there would be exclusions, he pointed out. Successful diplomacy, for example, depends upon exchanges of hypothetical offers, which could easily be derailed, if the details are leaked.

“But while it is a diplomat or UN official’s job to keep things secret, it is the media’s job to deliver information, so there will always be a tension. There are personnel matters that should be confidential, but preserving staff confidentiality should not be half a cover for hiding unethical or criminal behavior,” said Williams, who also writes for Salon, AlterNet and MaximsNews, among many others.

Jim Wurst, a former president of UNCA and author of the newly-released book titled The UN Association-USA: A Little Known History of Advocacy and Action, told IPS that FOIA is a good idea because the UN, like other large institutions, has serious transparency problems.

“Anything that forces the UN to fulfill its obligations to the people of the world is worth pursuing,” he added

On the proposal for a UN special envoy, Wurst said: “I’m torn on this one.”

He said journalists — like so many other non-combatants including medical professionals and aid workers — are increasingly being deliberately targeted by combatants. “It’s not a new problem but it is getting worse. It’s basically become standard behavior.”

On the other hand, anything that gives off the whiff of outsiders manipulating the actions of journalists is a non-starter. “I trust CPJ and RSF will always put the integrity of journalists first,” said Wurst.

According to the New York-based CPJ, 1,189 journalists have been killed since 1992, the five deadliest countries being Iraq (174 killed), Syria (94), the Philippines (77), Algeria (60) and Somalia (59).

Still, says CPJ, the killers of journalists go free nine times out of 10 – “a statistic that has scarcely budged since 2012.” The killings have been attributed not only to rebel forces and terrorist groups but also to governments in power.

Chakravarthi Raghavan, a veteran journalist and a former UN bureau chief for Press Trust of India (PTI), told IPS, FOIA raises the question whether it is to apply to the UN secretariat, or all UN organs, and the UN system as a whole.

If it applies to all UN organs, he pointed out that the UN Security Council (UNSC) has its own rules of procedures – for public sessions, meetings only of members, and its actions under Chapters VI and VII (decisions and actions under VII is binding on all members, and non-members) of the charter are independent of the UN General Assembly (UNGA).

Would an FOIA try to encompass UN System, UN Specialised Agencies, and those with some ambiguous status vis-a-vis the UN (the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, the World Trade Organisation?, he asked.

An FOIA (whether in the US, or in India where there is a right to information law, or UK etc) comes with some judicial authority getting jurisdiction to ensure observance when information is not provided, said the Geneva-based Raghavan, editor-emeritus, South-North Development Monitor SUNS, who has been covering trade, finance and development issues since 1978.

And who will be the authority to ensure that the UN Secretariat observes the FOIA, and adjudicate on the disputes?, he asked.

As for a UN special envoy to ensure safety of journalists, he said, such an envoy could raise the profile and draw and mobilise public attention and that of all governments – and will undoubtedly be of some utility.

But it also raises the question how the institution will recognise and distinguish between genuine journalists and those engaged in other activities under the guise of journalists, and whether it will involve some kind of license to practise journalism?, said Raghavan.

“These were questions that arose here a few years back when the idea of ‘protecting’ journalists, and issuing them badges or some identification to recognise a “journalist” arose.”

These are difficult questions, and one has to take care that either initiative does not end up in fact as a barrier or problem for the professionals, he warned.

However, a UN special envoy, focussing on these issues and reporting to the UNGA, and to the human rights council will provide high visibility, particularly if the media, in its own self-interest, reports on and publicises them.

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