U.N. Bribery Scandal Puts Spotlight on Press Rights

     MANHATTAN (CN) – As the United Nations gives the boot today to the first blogger it ever credentialed, press advocates question why the shadowy news outlet run by a disgraced diplomat still has a desk at the institution’s headquarters.
     South-South News is one of several nongovernmental organizations that federal prosecutors have called “essentially fronts” used to funnel $1.3 million for the creation of a U.N. conference center in Macau.
     The scandal brought indictments against Chinese billionaire Ng Lap Seng and former General Assembly President John Ashe, but South-South News continues to hold credentials in good standing.
     Meanwhile Inner City Press founder Matthew Lee, a reporter who railed against U.N. corruption long before this prosecution took root, faced a 5 p.m. deadline Wednesday to empty out his very messy U.N. news desk.
     Lee earned a reputation for using his residential correspondent pass to corner diplomats in front of their offices over the past decade, but he’s equally known for a portfolio of unedited broadsides, blog posts and live-stream broadcasts criticizing journalists and major news outlets that also cover the U.N.
     Discussing his tumble from the institution’s graces in one-hour interview at Times Square’s Heartland Brewery, Lee said the U.N. does not give passes with the intention that correspondents “investigate corruption.”
     “The point is not to go stake out the [Permanent General Assembly]’s office and see if there are any shady businessmen going in,” Lee said. “The point is go laugh with diplomats, and write stories about how the U.N. is solving Syria, which it isn’t.”
     As the U.N. tells it, Lee trespassed on a Jan. 29 closed meeting of the U.N. Correspondents Association (UNCA) by hiding in an interpreter’s booth outside the briefing room and recording it without consent.
     Those who witnessed the event agree upon the basic facts, but they dispute whether Lee violated any of the ground rules.
     Not one to mince words, Lee blasted what he described as “post-hoc” justifications for his ouster, which he compared to a Franz Kafka novel.
     “Initially, they tried to say that I secretly filmed a closed meeting,” he said. “That’s fallen apart because the meeting wasn’t recorded as closed.”
     Lee laughed off allegations that he entered a restricted area to secretly film the meeting, which he broadcast via a popular web-casting platform.
     “It’s hard to say that a Periscope live-streaming with my arms up is secret,” he said.
     By downgrading his residential correspondent credentials to a second-tier status, the U.N. has restricted Lee’s freedom of movement, forced him to be chaperoned by a minder, and rescinded his access to the in-house press room. Lee has spent the last two months working from his laptop outside the U.N.’s Manhattan headquarters, or wherever a WiFi signal near his beat takes him.
     U.N. spokesman Farhad Haq denied that Lee’s treatment represents an attempt to squelch adversarial press, but declined to specify what he described as Lee’s alleged “violation of the rules governing media credentials.”
     “The bottom line is that free office space at UN Headquarters is not an entitlement and is contingent on appropriate behaviour,” Haq said in an email Tuesday. “That has nothing to do with Mr. Lee’s reporting – he has had a residents correspondents pass for many years while reporting critically on the U.N., and is free to do so with his current accreditation, as well.”
     Though the hand of justice has moved swiftly for Lee, some observers question why South-South News has not met a similar fate after its president confessed to corruption.
     South-South News’ honorary president, Ambassador Francis Lorenzo, resigned last month after pleading guilty to his part in the corruption scheme, when he was serving as the deputy permanent representative for the United Nations to the Dominican Republic.
     Prosecutors unsealed charges against Vivian Wang, a South-South News vice president, days later on March 18.
     As of press time, a U.N. spokesman said merely that South-South News’ accreditation is “being reviewed.” An audit will be released on April 22.
     The Government Accountability Project complained about Lee’s fallout in a Feb. 26 letter to the U.S. Permanent Mission of the United Nations.
     “The action targeted Matthew Lee alone, and appears to be retaliatory in response to independent, critical journalism,” wrote Beatrice Edwards, the project’s international program director.
     UNCA, the group whose meeting Lee got in trouble for recording, has denied the appearance of unfairness.
     “UNCA stands for press freedom and vehemently defends rights of journalists at the UN and around the world,” the statement says. “UNCA is committed to journalism ethics and expects journalists to act professionally.”
     Lee in fact used to have a seat on UNCA’s executive board but had a very public falling out with the group four years ago over its screening of “Lies Agreed To.”
     The Sri Lankan government made the film to deny war crimes against the Tamils, prompting outcries from Lee that UNCA offered its banner for a public airing.
     While UNCA’s board exonerated its leadership in an extensive report, it accused Lee of bullying his colleagues with false allegations.
     Since his acrimonious resignation, Lee has never missed an opportunity to depict his colleagues at major newswires and networks as Turtle Bay’s “lap dogs.”
     Some critics have written Lee off as a gadfly blogger, but Inner City Press gained wide readership – with nearly 15,000 followers on Twitter – for investigative reporting of the institution and its press.
     “The idea is that this is a club,” he said. “You do enough work. They assign you an office. Then, you’re a resident correspondent, and that’s it. There’s no content test. It’s not how do you intend to use it, and I think covering corruption at the U.N. is journalism, certainly as much as re-typing press statements.”
     Lee concedes that his pending exile will “severely curtail” his newsgathering, but the reporter shows no signs of giving up on his beat or his bully pulpit.
     Foreign Policy ranked Lee among the top 100 “Twitterati” of 2013, and he uses the social-media platform to promote a petition, 1,282 names strong, urging reinstatement of his full credentials.

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