BBG Watch Commentary

The New York Civil Liberties Union asked the United Nations to disclose its procedures for reviewing the accreditation status of journalists who report on the international body. NYCLU wrote the letter in response to a request from Steve Redisch, the Executive Editor of Voice of America, who had asked the UN that press accreditations of independent American journalist Matthew Russell Lee who works for Inner City Press be reviewed after he became involved in a private professional dispute with a VOA correspondent and some other reporters covering the United Nations.

“We have been informed that Steve Redisch, the Executive Editor of Voice of America, has written a letter of complaint regarding a journalist, Matthew Russell Lee, who currently enjoys press privileges conferred by the United Nations Department of Public Information. The letter requests that the News and Media Division of the Department of Public Information review Mr. Lee’s accreditation status. We take no position on the merits of that complaint, or any other complaints that may be advanced with regard to Mr. Lee. We write in an effort to determine the procedure that is used to review the accreditation status of U.N. journalists and to urge that the procedure comport with basic principles of fairness.”

“Press access to the United Nations is vital to ensuring that the public is informed on issues of global importance,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “We want to ensure that the U.N.’s procedures for granting or withholding press access are fair and that journalists are not denied access arbitrarily or due to the content of their reporting.”

In its letter, the NYCLU maintains that when disputes arise that could result in the loss of a journalist’s press privileges, it is important that the journalist receive notice of the factual reasons for the review of his or her accreditation status, an opportunity to rebut those reasons, and a written decision containing the reasons for the ultimate determination. It asserts that these steps represent the minimum procedural safeguards for protecting freedom of expression.

See PDF file of the NYCLU Letter.

Also see the NYCLU press release: NYCLU Requests Review of U.N.’s Process for Accrediting Journalists

“Our concern in this matter derives from the basic understanding that the press plays a vital role in informing the public about the important issues of the day and the functioning of our public institutions. As stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Press access is an important vehicle to ‘ensure an informed public. And the procedures governing the granting or withholding of press access are, therefore, important. A fair and clear procedure plays an essential role in ensuring that press access is not denied arbitrarily or conditioned on the content of a journalist’s reporting.

Voice of America’s Executive Editor Steve Redisch, who is a U.S. government official, did not respond to Mr. Lee’s requests that a VOA UN correspondent stop the action to expel him from the voluntary United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA).

Mr. Lee told BBG Watch that he assumed he was exercising his First Amendment right to petition the government for redress of a grievance when he tried to explain in emails to Mr. Redisch and Voice of America Director David Ensor that the action by the VOA correspondent was threatening his safety. He pointed out in his emails that he has received threats from Sri Lankan extremists who object to his human rights reporting. He argued that authors of these threats became emboldened by media reports that a U.S. government-employed Voice of America journalist was trying to get him thrown out of the U.N.’s correspondents association.

Mr. Redisch did not respond to Mr. Lee’s emails. Instead in an email to the U.N. he asked that Mr. Lee’s U.N. press credentials be “reviewed” and accused Mr. Lee of “frequent, unprofessional and borderline harassing email correspondence.”

The VOA Public Affairs office responded to a media inquiry about Mr. Redisch’ actions by issuing a statement that “Voice of America’s interest in this matter is to insure our correspondents can operate in a professional work environment.”

BBG Watch has reviewed Mr. Lee’s emails to Mr. Redisch and Mr. Ensor and did not find them threatening and “unprofessional and borderline harassing.” If any unprofessional behavior was displayed, it was displayed by Mr. Redisch, a U.S. government official who ignored emails from an American citizen petitioning for redress of a grievance and instead accused him of initiating “frequent” correspondence. Mr. Redisch also tried to deprive Mr. Lee of his job by asking the U.N. that his press accreditation be “reviewed.” What makes this behavior especially chilling is the fact that the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America is broadcasting news abroad designed to counter censorship.

Voice of America broadcasters and programmers are proud to support through their work journalists and others who, like Mr. Lee, are trying to expose official corruption. Sources told BBG Watch that Mr. Redisch, who is relatively new to VOA and was previously employed at CNN, is blamed by many VOA journalists for extremely poor employee morale.

Sources told BBG Watch that VOA journalists tried to complain about Mr. Redisch and his management team to VOA Director David Ensor, also a former CNN employee, but their concerns and their distress that Mr. Redisch promoted a manager, who had been previously removed from an executive position for poor relations with the staff, were ignored.

Mr. Redisch’s latest actions have not only embarrassed the Voice of America, its employees and the Obama Administration, they have shown that he is not the best choice to lead a public institution that, in addition to its important journalistic role, also depends on the ability of its top managers to understand public diplomacy, human rights and media freedom implications of their actions.

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