BBG Watch Commentary
A New York Times May 13, 2016 article, “After Frustrating Officials, a Longtime U.N. Blogger Has His Access Curtailed,” which describes the plight of independent journalist Matthew Russell Lee who covers the United Nations in New York, overlooked an early effort by a Voice of America (VOA) executive and a U.S. federal government employee, to deny Mr. Lee his U.N. accreditation on the grounds that his behavior allegedly made U.S. government workers uncomfortable.
Steve Redisch who was at the time VOA Executive Editor, which placed him just below the then VOA director David Ensor. sent an e-mail on June 20, 2012 to the head of the U.N. News and Media Division, Mr. Stephane Dujarric, requesting that Mr. Lee’s status as an accredited U.N. correspondent be reviewed because a VOA correspondent and some other reporters at the U.N. are “uncomfortable with his [Mr. Lee’s] behavior.” Before becoming U.S. government executives, both Mr. Ensor and Mr. Redisch had previously worked for the same private sector U.S. media entity.
After the Voice of America request was made in 2012, various individuals and media freedom organizations protested against attempts by a U.S. government official and others to deny Matthew Russell Lee his U.S. press accreditation. The then BBG board member, Ambassador Victor Ashe, said at the time that “This [controversy] does not help BBG. It is most unfortunate. The Board needs to be told what is really going on. Explanations are merited.”
Critics said that such actions against an independent journalist by a high-level federal government executive working for the U.S. federal agency whose stated mission is “to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy” were unseemly. Critics also pointed out that as a federal government employee, Mr. Redisch had a duty to answer Mr. Lee’s e-mails and should have attempted to resolve his complaints instead of requesting the U.N. to review his status as an accredited correspondent.
Since the initial VOA-Lee-U.N. controversy in 2012, David Ensor had left his job at VOA which now has new director, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Amanda Bennett. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency which oversees the Voice of America, also has new CEO, John Lansing. He has promised to improve employee morale which has been record low at the BBG as measured in numerous Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys (FEVS). VOA journalists have been complaining for years about mismanagement and bullying by some of the longtime agency managers.
At about the time former VOA director David Ensor left the agency, Steve Redisch moved to another high-level VOA position. In an April 14, 2016 memo to staff from BBG CEO John Lansing, Steve Redisch is listed as an “Action Team” co-leader to “Implement 360 Feedback tools for SES, Senior Managers, Division Directors & Equivalents” as part of the management’s effort to improve employee morale. According to the memo, “For teams with two or more Team Lead volunteers, the Leads or Co-Team Leads were selected by their peers.” Steve Redisch’s position is listed in an April 14, 2016 memo as “VOA Dir Staff.” Mr. Lansing promised in a later memo: “We will create a working environment that is free of personal favoritism, coercion, reprisal and retaliation and other prohibited personnel practices.”
Matthew Russell Lee is an independent reporter and human rights community activist who has exposed corruption and abuses of power in the U.S. banking industry, at the United Nations, and in countries like Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan. He is described in Wikipedia, as a public interest lawyer, author, and founder of two non-profit organizations, Inner City Press and Fair Finance Watch. The Washington Post reporter Michael Powell wrote in a 2006 article about Matthew Russell Lee that “his challenge persuaded Citigroup’s CitiFinancial Credit Co. to pay a $70 million fine to settle Federal Reserve charges of impropriety in ladling out high-interest loans to the poor.”
In July 2012,the New York Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the U.N. defending his rights to an open and fair treatment in light of the Voice of America request from Steve Redisch to have his press accreditation reviewed. See NYCLU Letter as PDF document.
Claudia 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.”
The Heritage Foundation’s public diplomacy expert Helle Dale commented in 2012 on VOA’s action against Matthew Russell Lee.
HELLE DALE, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: “VOA, meanwhile, has joined other news organizations at the United Nations in endorsing the expulsion of an American investigative journalist.
Is this really behavior worthy of the U.S. agency supposed to embody the U.S. government’s commitment to freedom of expression? Of course not. Members of Congress, who are responsible for overseeing the agency, are increasingly frustrated with the way it is being run.”
The VOA’s Public Affairs office said in 2012 in response to media inquiries that “Voice of America’s interest in this matter is to insure our correspondents can operate in a professional work environment.”
The New York Times May 13, 2016 article describes Mr. Lee as “a gadfly” whom some call “a tough, in-your-face questioner” while “others call him a loose cannon who makes it almost impossible for other journalists to ask questions.” [Emphasis added.]
The New York Times article reports that efforts to withdraw Matthew Russell Lee’s U.S. press accreditation have finally succeeded. The latest U.N. action against Mr. Lee is not directly related to the 2012 Voice of America complaint but to an incident in January 2016.
NYT: Mr. Lee was disciplined after refusing to leave a January meeting held by his colleagues in the United Nations press briefing room. He showed up uninvited and started posting on Twitter and live-streaming the gathering, setting off an argument between Mr. Lee and United Nations press staff members and security officials.
The United Nations also revoked his resident correspondent status, which is granted to about 200 journalists who cover the organization regularly.
The New York Times reported that Mr. Lee has been working using daily passes given to visiting journalists. Mr. Lee considers these moves as censorship in retaliation for his critical coverage of the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.
READ MORE: After Frustrating Officials, a Longtime U.N. Blogger Has His Access Curtailed, Corey Kilgannon, The New York Times, May 13, 2016
ALSO SEE: Why independent reporter Matthew Russell Lee annoys Voice of America?, BBG Watch, July 3, 2012