Saturday August 25, 2018
By Carmen Arroyo and Emily Thampoe
Journalists covering the arrival of delegations to address the General Assembly’s seventy-second general debate. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas
The United Nation’s Department of Public Information (DPI) last week
withdrew UN press credentials from Matthew Lee, a longstanding
journalist who reported for his blog, Inner City Press (ICP).
UN officials have argued that the reason for the withdrawal was his
lack of adherence to guidelines every reporter has to follow for UN
coverage, Lee’s accreditation predicament is not as straightforward as
it may seem.
Throughout a running battle leading to his ban, he
has argued he did not have the opportunity to be heard. “This is a new
low for the UN: no due process for journalists, no freedom of the
press,” he told IPS.
Lee is perhaps only the third journalist to
be banned from the UN, the other two being barred in the 1970s, one of
them for harassing colleagues, and the other losing his credentials when
Taiwan lost its UN membership to the People’s Republic of China in
1971, according to a veteran UN correspondent who has been covering the
world body for over four decades.Since his beginnings as a UN
correspondent over 10 years ago, Lee has been known for asking
thought-provoking questions during daily briefings and at press
stakeouts. He has reported on global conflicts such as those in Sri
Lanka, Congo, Somalia, and others, as well as news coverage within the
For many people who worked within the UN framework, and even
those who were simply fascinated by the unfolding events in the world
body, Lee’s blog posts have been well-read and well-received, for the
However, the incidents with Lee started back in 2012,
when he was warned by the DPI to treat his fellow journalists with
respect. At that time, nothing was done to affect his access to meetings
and to his physical presence in the UN premises.
Two years ago, things changed: he was in an interpreter’s booth
recording a closed-door meeting of UN correspondents, without their
consent. Then, DPI’s Media and Liaison Unit (MALU) made the decision to
downgrade his accreditation from “resident correspondent” to
“non-resident correspondent”, which means he was deprived of his own
office space, barred from going to the UN on weekends and prevented from
staying late hours and restricted from some areas in the building.
Lee believes this was “bogus reason” for the treatment he received,
Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary General, told IPS:
“Matthew has come up with his own version on his website. But in that
case I know to be true what I saw with my eyes”.
downgrading of his credentials, Lee continued reporting and asking
abrasive questions during the noon press briefings.
Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary General, along with the UN officer
that had to deal with Lee’s questioning, has constantly repeated that
they had no problem with his reporting, but with his behavior. It seemed
that the change in his accreditation pass had no effect. “After that,
the problems with his behavior did not subside”, said Haq.
22nd, Lee had to be removed from the UN premises as he stayed long
after his accreditation permitted him, and on July 3rd, he was similarly
found long after 9 pm within a restricted area of the complex. UN
Security removed him from the premises, but he apparently resisted.
to Lee, that was an invalid reason, since he can cover specific
meetings past 7 pm but UN representatives insist this situation was in
breach of the UN press guidelines. UN Security grabbed Lee, who
resisted, escorted him forcefully to the exit, ripping his shirt in the
process. Lee also claims his laptop was damaged and his arm twisted by a
UN security officer.
After that incident, his press accreditation
was put under review and he was temporarily banned from UN
headquarters. Many sympathized with him.
Peter Sterne, senior
reporter at Freedom of the Press Foundation and managing editor of the
US Press Freedom Tracker, told IPS: “Even if Lee was technically in
violation of the UN’s rules for non-resident correspondents, there was
no reason for UN security guards to grab him and forcibly escort him out
of the building, ripping his shirt in the process. It is never
appropriate for security guards to use force against journalists.”
that day, Lee has defiantly continued working outside the UN premises,
with interviews being conducted in the sidewalks, with delegates and
other officials on their way in or out of the building.
sends emails on a daily basis to the Office of the Spokesperson. His
questions include policy matters, his suspension, and other issues.
August 17, his press accreditation was permanently withdrawn, banning
him from UN premises, and detailed in a four-page letter sent by Alison
Smale, Under Secretary General for Global Communications.
Smale explained the reasons behind Lee’s pass withdrawal.
mis-behaviours stood out: staying inside the complex past the hours he
was allowed to, going to areas he was not supposed to be in,
questionable behavior towards delegates and fellow journalists,
“including videos/live broadcasts using profanities and derogatory
assertions towards them without due regard to their dignity, privacy and
In an interview with IPS, Haq said: “Of course, we
respect his press rights, but we also want to respect other’s press
rights. And some journalists feel their press rights have been impeded
by his actions.”
At the noon press briefing on August 20, in the
latest development in the ongoing saga, Dujarric was asked about Lee’s
“Mr. Lee’s accreditation was — as a correspondent here –
was revoked due to repeated incidents having to do with behaviour, with
violation – violating the rules that all of you sign on to and accept
when you receive your accreditation, rules that are, by far,
self-policing. We trust journalists to respect the rules. The rules
are clear, and they’re transparent.”
He added: “The removal of his
accreditation had nothing to do with the content of his writing. The
allegations include recording people without their consent, being found
in the garage ramp late at night, using abusive and derogatory language
On the same day, Lee shared with IPS his thoughts
over Dujarric’s responses: “What he said today in the briefing makes it
clear how little a case the UN has – I was in a garage? When? If so, my
non resident correspondent pass worked to get there. ”
Haq told IPS: “The fact is that what we’ve been able to see is that he
has a track record of different types of behavior that impede the
activities of other journalists and members of member states, and he has
created difficulties with security”.
He went on by stating: “I
know for a fact that he has his own version of these events, but we have
security records and cameras that do not coincide with his version of
But Lee believes there is a conspiracy from the top of
the United Nations to keep him silent: “They dug up everything they
could, a real hit job, which I’m told comes right from the top:
Guterres, who didn’t like my questions and writing that he was weak on
the killings in Cameroon because he needed or wanted the support of the
chair of the UN budget committee, Cameroon’s ambassador Tommo Monthe.”
the UN of conspiring against him, Lee said: “I am not going to allow
Antonio Guterres, Alison Smale and Dujarric to prevent me from covering
the UN. This is a shameful period for the UN, and I don’t intend to
stop”, he claimed.
“I think large institutions like the UN need to
be held accountable, including by journalists who daily ask them
questions using information from those impacted (and sometimes injured)
by the institutions.”
He added: “This explains the approach I
take with my reporting and I think it is appropriate and needed and that
the UN has no right to try to hinder or prevent it.”
in an interview with IPS, a veteran journalist in the UN press corps,
speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “Coverage of the United
Nations is very important for the peoples of the world and the
organization must facilitate journalists to do their job. After all, the
UN is a tax-payer funded organization and its activities should be open
“But some rules have been devised, in
consultations with the United Nations Correspondents’ Association
(UNCA), the representative body of journalists, for orderly coverage of
It is important to note, he said, that Lee is not a
member of UNCA, and he has consistently criticized it. The veteran
journalist went on: “There are do’s and don’ts for correspondents — for
instance, journalists trying to get into closed-door or restricted
meetings will be stopped. The elected president of UNCA will always put
the first question at press conferences/news briefings. Journalists
should not make statements, just ask questions, etc.”
Lee has not
been the first journalist to be denied press accreditation, he pointed
out. On the contrary, there have been more than two previous cases.
veteran correspondent recalled that in the late 1970s, a journalist
called Judy Joy sued UNCA for alleged irregularities in handling its
funds. After a long and arduous process, UNCA was cleared of any
mishandling but the association was left bankrupt due to lawyer fees.
was not satisfied, and she said that the then UNCA president had
threatened her for going to court, so the police picked up the president
from his apartment early in the morning. But the case was proved bogus,
as the president completely denied talking with Joy and she lacked any
evidence. After that, the UN correspondents asked the UN to expel her to
prevent her from further harassing her fellow journalists.
case he recalls was a political one: “After China’s entry to the UN in
1971, Beijing demanded the expulsion of Taiwan’s correspondent at the UN
as its push for recognition of its goal of one China. Some western
journalist protested, but the UN couldn’t do anything as it was also the
demand of majority of member states.”
Other UN sources have
mentioned another case during their time at the headquarters, in which a
reporter’s accreditation was withdrawn for misbehaviors.
Lee’s questions, directed to the Spokesperson’s Office, have been
answered via email since he was expelled from the complex.
explained: ““He sends us questions by email and we try to get them
answered as best as we can. And we’ll keep doing that regardless where
However, Lee insisted: “Today’s UN is so corrupt they just look for a pretext to throw a critical journalist out. For life.”