UNITED NATIONS (CN) – In an ironic start to World Press Freedom Day, several journalists and news organizations hosted by the United Nations for a panel discussion Thursday accused the peacekeeping organization of censorship.
The all-star panel had been slated to feature CNN host Brian Stelter, Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi, and representatives of three press-advocacy groups: the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Center for Journalists, and Lie Detectors, an educational program.
That was before the News Literacy Project, a Washington-based group that organized the panel, tipped fellow organizers at the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations about a video it planned to present at the event.
Among other points, the video criticized Turkey for its reputation as the world’s leading jailer of journalists. A copy of the video on the project’s website includes images of Turkish brothers Mehmet and Ahmet Altan, who were both recently sentenced to life imprisonment. The footage also shows Turkish-German reporter Deniz Yucel, whose release after an arms deal brokered by Chancellor Angela Merkel drew attention to Ankara’s use of “hostage diplomacy.”
Alan Miller, the president of the News Literacy Project, said in a blog post Thursday that his group “submitted the presentation to UNAOC on Monday so it would be ready to be shared with the audience.”
“A UNAOC official then asked us to delete the reference to Turkey — which, along with Spain, had proposed the creation of UNAOC in 2005 — and the official later insisted that NLP not share any of the video clips,” Miller added.
The revelations sparked outrage from the panelists: CNN’s Stetler featured the act of “censorship” at the top of his nightly newsletter. The Journal’s Fassihi called the muzzling a “disgrace.”
“This has been planned for over a month,” Fassihi said in an interview with Courthouse News. “Registrations went out a couple of weeks ago. It was very well advertised on social media and everywhere, and some of the panelists flew into New York yesterday.”
The U.N. Alliance of Civilizations pulled the plug on the event late in the afternoon on Wednesday, telling more than 150 attendees that it had been “postponed” because of a scheduling conflict.
U.N. General Assembly President Miroslav Lajcak had been slated to appear at a concurrent event, where Secretary General Antonio Guterres had been expected to deliver remarks on video.
A veteran United Nations correspondent, Fassihi did not find the U.N. agency’s scheduling excuse credible.
“Now, I cover the U.N.,” Fassihi said. “I know that there are, on any given day, multiple side events as the [secretary-general] speaks, and I have never heard of any event being canceled because of a conflict of scheduling with an SG speech.”
Farhan Haq, the deputy spokesman for the secretary-general, emphasized that the United Nations supports press freedom, but he declined to say whether the Turkish government would face any reprimand if found to have muzzled U.N. correspondents.
“Well, first of all, we need the details on what they did today,” Haq said. “If there’s no reasonable or good explanation for what happened, obviously, we’d want to make sure that they don’t do these sorts of things, but I can’t speculate. Right now, we’re at the stage of trying to get a clear explanation, and I think they owe us that and they owe you that.”
Fassihi has since demanded that the head of the UNAOC resign.
“So, this is problematic on multiple levels,” Fassihi said. “First of all, this is U.N. headquarters. It’s World Press Freedom Day. We are in New York, in the United States, where we have First Amendment rights.”
As for the U.N.’s own obligations, Fassihi added: “It’s supposed to protect and uphold principles of free press, and no oppression of journalists and silencing of journalists and we see censorship at this level at U.N. headquarters?”
“It’s frankly shocking,” she concluded.
The World Press Freedom Day panel that did take place on Thursday was sponsored in part by a 19-member state organization called the Group of Friends for the Protection of Journalists.
Several of its members have been skewered in the annual press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, including Bulgaria (labeled “opaque and corrupt” at the 111th spot), Brazil (called “more insecure than ever” in 102nd place), and Jordan (considered “not very free” in the 132nd place).
In an unsigned statement, the U.N. Alliance on Civilizations defended its suppression of the video and impugned the work of the journalists who produced it.
“Upon reviewing the video that the News Literacy Project (NLP) submitted only one day before the event, we saw that it was unbalanced,” the U.N. body said. “We, therefore, asked NLP to either make a comprehensive presentation of all countries where press freedom is limited, or to remove reference to specific countries that had been singled out in their report, to ensure objectivity and a more comprehensive representation.”
News Literacy Project head Alan Miller gave a dramatically different version of events, saying that that the UNAOC’s representative Jodi Torrent never expressed concern about the video’s accuracy or objectivity.
“It’s a beautiful video,” Miller quoted Torrent as saying. “It’s a great video. It’s very nicely done.”
Miller added that Torrent was “embarrassed” to be turned into a censor and deleted the references to Turkey without authorization.
“I am enraged about it, and I don’t feel good about it,” Torrent said, as quoted by Miller. “I am stuck with it for now.”
The U.N. Alliance of Organizations did not respond to a request for comment.