BBG Watch Commentary
There is little doubt that United Nations officials find independent reporter Matthew Russell Lee highly annoying. His reports have uncovered fraud, waste, abuse and corruption at the UN. They can be found in the UNDP Blog and on the Inner City Press website.
Inner City Press describes itself as being “headquartered in the South Bronx of New York City, [and] engages in investigations and journalism regarding human rights, transparency, corporate accountability, community reinvestment, predatory lending, environmental justice, fair housing, social exclusion and related topics. Inner City Press covers (and where applicable is accredited media at) the United Nations, the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, banking and insurance regulatory agencies, the Federal Communications Commission, and various courts.”
Here are some recent reports on corruption at the UN on the UNDP Blog:
But while Matthew Russell Lee is clearly guilty of annoying UN officials with his anti-corruption stories, he also seems to have annoyed some of the other reporters covering the UN, including a Voice of America correspondent. They are trying to expel him from the voluntary United Nations Correspondents Association after he accused some of them of plagiarizing his reports without giving him credit and of other transgressions which they say are untrue.
This is how the initial controversy among UN-based journalists was first reported by Brett D. Schaefer for National Review Online:
“The United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA) would have better things to do than pick a fight with a single reporter. But you would be wrong. Matthew Lee is the only reporter for Inner City Press, a Bronx-based nonprofit group known mainly for investigations of financial institutions and advocacy for the poor. Lee has broken a number of stories about the U.N., but now he himself is the story. In fact, he could become the first journalist ever expelled from UNCA.
Last week, UNCA announced that it would investigate Lee for unethical and unprofessional behavior.”
What appeared to be an internal dispute among journalists covering the UN was brought, however, to a completely new level by a top Voice of America executive who has called for revoking Mr. Lee’s press credentials. To our knowledge, the Voice of America has never made such a request before, not even against the Soviet block journalists during the Cold War most of whom were engaging in espionage.
While Reuters, Agence France Press, Bloomberg and Al-Arabia let their correspondents at the UN resolve their own differences with Matthew Russell Lee using the UNCA channels, the Executive Editor of the Voice of America Steve Redisch sent an email to the head of the UN News & Media Division asking that Mr. Lee’s press credentials at the UN be “reviewed,” which amounts to asking for banning him from working as a reporter at the UN.
It is clearly unprecedented for the second-in-command executive at the Voice of America, which is funded by American taxpayers and communicates with the world through broadcasts and Internet on behalf of the United States, to request that an independent reporter be banned simply for “frequent, unprofessional and borderline harassing email correspondence.”
Even Mr. Redisch admits in his email to the UN that Mr. Lee has not physically threatened the VOA correspondent.” As the Voice of America Executive Editor, Mr. Redisch is a US government employee. His immediate boss is the Voice of America director David Ensor. Both Redisch and Ensor worked formerly for CNN.
Referring to the Voice of America’s latest move against Mr. Lee, Brett D. Schaefer again wrote in National Review Online “this taxpayer-supported operation is urging the U.N. to rescind Lee’s accreditation. The U.S. mission should intervene to block this press-chilling maneuver.”
Dr. Helle Dale of the Heritage Foundation reported on this unprecedented move by VOA in her recent analysis of the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) “culture of secrecy.”
The BBG is responsible for the overall management of the Voice of America and has recently adopted a resolution threatening its employees with punishment for disclosing certain internal communications to the media and members of Congress. Ironically, the BBG’s mission is to support free media abroad and to encourage the type of media disclosures and reporting of wrongdoing that BBG and VOA executives want to ban for its employees and in which Matthew Russell Lee engages at the UN.
“On June 29, VOA management upped the stakes by sending a letter to the U.N. urging the organization to deny Lee press credentials altogether,” Dr. Helle Dale reported in the Heritage Foundation blog. “The letter, signed by VOA executive director Steve Redisch, boils down to this: We don’t like him; his work is not up to our standards; and he keeps sending us annoying e-mails, ” wrote Dr. Dale.
Meanwhile, Matthew Russell Lee is fighting the attempt to expel him from the United Nations Correspondents Association and the move by VOA’s Executive Editor Steve Redisch to revoke his UN press credentials. The law firm of Gibbons is representing Mr. Lee pro bono through its John J. Gibbons Fellowship in Public Interest and Constitutional Law.
The Voice of America Public Affairs office is saying that “Voice of America’s interest in this matter is to insure our correspondents can operate in a professional work environment.” Sources have told BBG Watch that the VOA correspondent is well respected by her VOA colleagues and that she is genuinely afraid of Mr. Lee.
But Matthew Russell Lee claims that it was the action of the VOA correspondent and her colleagues at the UN that has exposed him to threats from foreign critics emboldened by the possibility of his expulsion from the association of journalists covering the UN. In a statement obtained by BBG Watch, he described how his reporting on the UN Correspondents Association annoyed both his colleagues and extremists in Sri Lanka:
Voice of America is Trying to Ban Me from Reporting on the UN
by Matthew Russell Lee, InnerCityPress.com
In covering the United Nations until recently I’ve had little exposure to the Voice of America — that is, until VOA executive editor Steve Redisch moved on June 20, 2012 to get me thrown out of the UN. Let me explain.
I cover the UN for a web site, InnerCityPress.com. It has broken a few stories, from violent disarmament in Uganda, through UNDP corruption in North Korea and now Afghanistan, to the UN’s plans in Libya, to cocaine found in the UN mail room, and coverage of UN inaction on war crimes in Sri Lanka.
During this time, Voice of America has not broken any story at UN headquarters, to the best of my knowledge.
But when I mentioned in a story that the president of the UN Correspondents Association Giampaolo Pioli had rented his apartment to Palitha Kohona, who then as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN got Pioli to arrange a screening in the UN of his government’s war crimes denial video, I had a run in with VOA.
Voice of America’s UN bureau chief Margaret Besheer, who like me was elected to the UNCA executive committee, admonished me to write more positively about the UN.
Then along with the UN bureau chiefs of Reuters (Louis Charbonneau), Bloomberg (Flavia Krause Jackson), Al – Arabiya (Talal Al-Haj) and Agence France Presse (Timothy Witcher), VOA’s Besheer started a witch hunt against me, a so called “Board to Examination,” to expel me from UNCA.
Because I was being asked to censor future coverage, and because the UNCA Board of Examination process gave rise almost immediately to gleeful death threats from extremist supporters of Sri Lanka’s government, I asked Besheer to stop, since she is a US government employee covered by the First Amendment.
She called this entreaty a threat, and refused to stop the process. So I wrote to VOA in Washington, asking them to suspend or stop the process that put me under threat [from Sri Lankan extremists].
VOA editor Sonja Pace told me that Besheer was on leave — in the UK at the Diamond Jubilee as it happens — but that she would answer soon.
She never did, so Inner City Press wrote two more times, also documenting Besheer’s and VOA’s unauthorized, uncredited use of originally exclusive material from Inner City Press.
Then on June 20, VOA’s Redisch wrote to the UN to get Inner City Press expelled. It seems that even just having a small cubicle office in the UN, VOA has “gone native,” including contempt for freedom of the press. And so we’ll be opposing this assault on the First Amendment — watch InnerCityPress.com.
BBG Watch was informed that Margaret Besheer denies ever asking Mr. Lee to write more positively about the UN.
BBG Watch has reviewed copies of emails sent by Mr. Lee to Steve Redisch, VOA director David Ensor, and another VOA senior executive Sonja Pace. We did not find them threatening or even harassing. In his emails, Mr. Lee stated that he has become a target of threats from Sri Lankan extremists because of his investigative reporting on human rights abuses in Sri Lanka and attempts by UN officials to deny war crimes in that country. He was asking VOA executives that their correspondent cease her move to have him expelled from the United Nations Correspondents Associations since he saw this action as emboldening individuals making these threats.
Here is an excerpt from one of his emails:
I am troubled that Voice of America, using US taxpayer’s funds, would take this position and now be seeking to expel a smaller more investigative media. I note VoA’s online statement at http://www.voanews.com/khmer-english/about-us/code/ that:
“When performing official duties, VOA broadcasters leave their personal political views behind. The accuracy, quality, and credibility of the Voice of America are its most important assets, and they rest on listeners’ perception of VOA as an objective source of world, regional, and U.S. news and information. To that end, all VOA journalists will:
“1. Always travel on regular, non-diplomatic passports, and rely no more and no less than private-sector correspondents on U.S. missions abroad for support, as set out in the guidelines for VOA correspondents.
“2. Assist managers whose duty is to ensure that no VOA employee, contract employee, or stringer works for any other U.S. government agency, any official media of another state, or any international organization, without specific VOA authorization.
“3. Adhere strictly to copyright laws and agency regulations and always credit the source when quoting, paraphrasing, or excerpting from other broadcasting organizations, books, periodicals or any print media.
“In addition to these journalistic standards and principles, VOA employees recognize that their conduct both on and off the job can reflect on the work of the Voice of America community. They adhere to the highest standards of journalistic professionalism and integrity. They work to foster teamwork, goodwill, and civil discourse in the workplace and with their colleagues everywhere in the world, all to enhance the credibility and effectiveness of the Voice of America.”
Are all of these being lived up to?, asks Matthew Russell Lee
Other journalists and media freedom advocates defend Mr. Lee. Brett D. Schaefer reported in National Review Online that “He may not always get it right, but Matthew covers the U.N. like no one else, often scooping much larger news organizations,” the New York Post’s Benny Avni says. “Matthew digs into how it works — and often into how it doesn’t.”
Schaefer also quotes Claudia Rosett, another defender of Mr. Lee’s journalistic work. Ms. Rosett, a former staff writer for The Wall Street Journal and a journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told National Review commentator: “Matthew Russell Lee has broken a series of important stories over the years — stories that without his efforts might have gone unnoticed.”
Matthew Russell Lee told BBG Watch that Mr. Redisch has never answered Inner City Press emails. He also said that contrary to Mr. Redisch’s assertion to the UN, Inner City Press has not sent any emails directly to the VOA UN correspondent but tried to achieve redress by contacting US government officials at the VOA headquarters in Washington.
We agree with Mr. Lee’s statement that the “unprofessional and borderline harassing email correspondence” to Redisch “and to other senior VOA management” were, in fact, requests that VOA as a government funded media comply with the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
Matthew Russell Lee pointed out that “Beyond freedom of speech and of the press, the First Amendment protects the right to petition the government — including this state media Voice of America — for redress of grievances.”
“Particularly in these times of fiscal austerity, does it make sense — and is it legal — to spend US taxpayers’ dollars on a campaign to oust from the UN an investigative journalist who exposes waste, fraud and abuse?” asked Mr. Lee.
BBG Watch is asking the same questions. We believe that Mr. Redisch’s request to the UN to have Matthew Russell Lee’s press credentials “reviewed” runs contrary to the BBG’s mission, violates VOA’s own journalistic rules, harms VOA’s reputation and represents an unprecedented attack by a U.S. government official on the First Amendment. VOA director David Ensor should immediately ask Mr. Redisch to withdraw his request and to apologize to the Inner City Press reporter. BBG and VOA executives should receive sensitivity training on how to deal with the public and resolve conflicts without taking actions that embarrass the institution which claims to defend media freedom.