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IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse

MEDIA: U.N. Press Corps Protest Rented Offices

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 9 2009 (IPS) - Every U.N. secretary-general since Norway’s Trygve Lie back in 1946 believed in the concept of a free press – including rent-free offices to journalists covering the United Nations.

But that may change if a proposal being kicked around in the corridors of the world body becomes a reality.

The proposal to charge rent has triggered a strong protest from the 60-year-old U.N. Correspondents Association (UNCA), which represents the interests of nearly 1,000 accredited journalists, of whom more than 200 are paid members or fulltime correspondents.

UNCA President Giampaolo Pioli, who writes for several Italian publications, including the daily La Nazione, says UNCA members “share a broad concern that charging rent would significantly thin the ranks and diminish the quality of the diverse world of international print, broadcast and online journalists.”

In a letter of protest, he says pointedly: “Charging rent would interfere with that intended access for news organisations helping to spread news of the U.N. to the globe’s farthest reaches.”

"They will not be able to pay rent. They oppose it and believe this practice of levying rents would end up discouraging majority of correspondents from developing countries to come and work at the U.N.,"

Under an ambitious 1.9-billion-dollar Capital Master Plan (CMP), the ageing Secretariat is to be gutted and renovated over the next five years, emptying the 39-storeyed building.

As part of the mass migration, the U.N. press corps will be temporarily moved to the adjoining Dag Hammarskjold Library where office space for journalists is to be rented out – for the first time.

Anwarul Karim Chowdhury, a former U.N. Under Secretary-General, told IPS the decision to charge rent or to throw the correspondents out from their present work-stations “is mindless and needs to be retracted”.

“The worst victims would be developing country journalists who would be particularly disadvantaged, if rents are charged,” he added.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon needs to intervene urgently and get this unnecessary confrontation, with the very people who are the organisation’s good and supportive friends for years, out of the way, said Chowdhury, a former Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations.

Samir Sanbar, a former assistant secretary-general who once headed the U.N.’s department of public information (DPI), recounts an incident when a similar proposal was put forward many moons ago.

“Who needs your friends (meaning U.N. correspondents) and even your people (meaning DPI staff) when we’ve got the New York Times?” a senior U.N. official reportedly told Sanbar.

“My response,” Sanbar told IPS, “was that it will be shortsighted to assume that the Times was in anyone’s pocket.”

“I said it was arrogant to dismiss house correspondents, most of whom were more loyal to U.N. objectives than some recently appointed senior officials,” Sanbar added.

He said the proposal to charge rent was shot down by then Secretary-General Kofi Annan – and at a time when some correspondents had started targeting him personally during the U.N.’s oil-for-food scandal.

On charging rent, Sanbar said: “My view on this is that we are not profit-minded accountants, although we need to be accountable for cost-effectiveness.”

Further, he said, a consistent professional review would authenticate the work of regularly operational correspondents and identify those who may not really need space.

Clearly, he noted, “there are always those who would wish to pressure the media, particularly when feeling nervous or insecure.”

“Let’s hope we do not have to witness more media-related restrictive measures,” Sanbar said.

An equally strong protest came from James A. Paul, executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, which monitors the United Nations on a daily basis.

“Now that neo-liberalism is less fashionable and understood to be largely responsible for the world financial crisis, it is surprising that the United Nations would enlarge its neo-liberal management practices and policies to cover the space made available to journalists,” he told IPS.

Isn’t it clear that journalists bring important positive benefits to the U.N.?, Paul asked.

“The new policy, therefore, may produce a small trickle of revenue, but it may be entirely the opposite of what is needed,” he said.

In this period of financial crisis, many media outlets are cutting their budgets and the U.N. bureaus of some may be at risk, he pointed out.

“Southern representation in the U.N. press corps may be especially at risk. So to act on a narrowly economic basis, may result in less coverage of the U.N., less support for the U.N., less effectiveness of the U.N.”

“These foreseeable problems show that some people just are not thinking seriously about implications and long-term effects,” he added.

Powerful member states that insist on such reforms have recently proven that their economic panaceas have led to disaster, he added.

Paul said it’s time for the U.N. to shake off these neo-liberal habits and to return to some kind of welfare budgeting, that really takes into account the full picture and leads the U.N. in the right direction.

Asked about the proposed rent, Michael Alderstein, CMP’s executive director, told reporters last week: “The issue arose because we’re spending tens of millions of dollars on rent (for the relocation of U.N. staffers to neighbouring buildings) that we never used to spend.”

“Just to make everyone aware, we value the correspondents and we also are aware, and everyone is aware, of the cost of the U.N. paying rent out in the field while the correspondents are not,” Alderstein said.

“I am not taking any position at this point, as to the validity of it, but it has become an issue because of the amount of rent we are paying out in the commercial market,” he added.

A senior U.N. official, sympathetic to the journalists, pointed out that there was a 1975 General Assembly resolution recognising “the contribution of the media in promoting the activities of the United Nations and in mobilising public support for the Organisation.”

On the strength of this resolution, the Secretariat recommended that accommodation to the media, which had been provided free of charge since the inception of the world body, should continue.

Masood Haider, a veteran U.N. correspondent who covers the world body for the influential Pakistan daily Dawn, told IPS the majority of journalists based at the United Nations are either stringers or come mostly from developing nations.

“They will not be able to pay rent. They oppose it and believe this practice of levying rents would end up discouraging majority of correspondents from developing countries to come and work at the U.N.,” he said.

As it is now, he added, the best office spaces are granted to news outlets from big countries, including from the United States, Britain and Russia.

Erol Avdovic, a Bosnian journalist who covers the U.N. for Radio Deutsche Welle, told IPS the given office space for media inside the U.N. building is not a vendor commercial space.

He predicted that the biggest victims would be the small media outlets, mostly from the Third World, since they may not be able to pay for their U.N. offices.

“I cannot imagine that the U.N., and even Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, would favour the corporate culture of the big media at the expense of the news outlets of the developing world, which comprise over two-thirds of the members of the United Nations,” he added.

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