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By Richard Armstrong
Covering the inner-workings of the United Nations, the scrappy news site Inner City is owned and written by Matthew Lee. Despite the relatively small operation, Lee is a tenacious—some say abrasive—journalist who breaks more than his share of stories. But in recent weeks, the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA)—the professional association that represents reporters covering the UN—is considering his expulsion, accusing him of bullying and unethical behavior. Lee claims competitors from the big media groups are punishing him for scooping them and that the UNCA wants to silence him. The spat is emblematic of the closeness of UN reporters to the organizations they cover and what happens when one speaks out against the UN clubhouse.
Lee has beaten his competitors to the punch on numerous occasions since gaining accreditation at the UN in 2006. He has broken stories such as the Ecuadorian diplomatic pouches that were used to smuggle cocaine, the dust up between the security staff of Ban Ki Moon and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, and the deployment of UN observers to Libya. The latter story sparked outrage in Libya and caused the transitional government to change its mind and back about of the arrangement, leaving the UN embarrassed
The deployment would have consisted of unarmed UN military observers and police. It was hoped that the police would help Libyan security forces regain order, while also ensuring that those linked to the former regime were not abused. When Lee revealed the UN document outlining this plan, the transitional government changed its mind and said it did not want any foreign soldiers in their country. It was an embarrassment for the UN that Libya had so publicly said it did not require their help. The Wall Street Journal published a story several weeks earlier about a briefing of the plan. But Lee was the first to publish the detailed document outling the plan.
Despite the controversy of his stories, according to Lee his competitors have picked up his exclusives—frequently without crediting him. In March, Lee published a story about Jeffrey Feltman, a White House official who was moved to a top UN position. Seven weeks later, Reuters wrote a piece on the move. One of the contributing reporters was Louis Charbonneau, one of Lee’s competitors at Turtle Bay. Lee believed he had been un-credited yet again and confronted Charbonneau. This incident, along with a history of similar disputes with colleagues, caused the UNCA to appoint an investigative committee to look into accusations of aggressive behavior by Lee.
As the dispute escalated, Lee has frequently emailed his accusers and even contacted their bosses at their agencies. He also has reprinted old stories he previously wrote about the other UN reporters—which appear to be the main problem his competitors have with him. These include a story about the UNCA president, Giampaolo Paoli, having close ties to the Sri Lankan government.
The central accusation is that Paoli rented an apartment to Palitha Kohona, a Sri Lankan who is now the Permanent Representative to the UN. The financial relationship between Paoli and Kohona seems to be above board and was only that of a tenant and landlord over seven years ago. At the time Kohona was a UN official, not a representative of Sri Lanka. Lee has also asserted that an Agence France Presse correspondent attempted to punish him for writing a story that embarrassed the Élysée Palace.
Lee seems somewhat prone to conspiracy theories. He says the accusations against Paoli has led the UNCA to stir up hatred against him. While Lee has been threatened by commenters in online message boards, the claim that the UNCA is responsible for them appears baseless. The UNCA isn’t likely to encourage Sinhalese extremists to threaten a UNCA member they’re in a dispute with. They have tried to keep the investigation under wraps and stirring up threats against the reporter in question would defeat this goal. In a statement to reporters, UNCA says the accusation that they helped engineer threats is “a false and damaging claim” and that the “UNCA condemns in the strongest terms all threats against any journalist.”
Lee has a point when he argues that his competitors recycle his stories without due credit and that he sometimes embarrasses the UN bureaucracy. But Lee is wrong that he is being censored. The censorship claim rests on the fact that the UNCA has asked him to stop writing about his colleagues. While UNCA should not dictate what he writes about, Lee loses credibility through his ad hominem writings on colleagues, which have been dubious at best. While Lee should be able to write a story on any topic he wishes, including his fellow reporters, those stories should be based on important issues such as conflict of interest and on fact. Lee’s stories in fact do appear to harass his accusers and asking him to stop is not out of line.
One member of the executive committee was brought to tears when recounting how Lee mentioned her on his blog in what she felt was an offensive and intimidating way. She went to her boss, who complained directly to the UNCA about Lee’s accreditation.
Lee argues that the Investigation Committee set up against him is illegitimate. In an email he said that he didn’t know the charges against him and that members of the committee were being “hand-picked” by Pioli. Other members of UNCA share Lee’s view that the organization should not be investigating other reporters. Luiz Rampelotto, a photographer for Europe Newswire resigned from his position on the Executive Committee of the UNCA because of the investigation. In an email, he said, “I will never go against a journalist because he is talking bad about you and you don’t like it! That was just outrageous when they ask me for that! I use to have great respect for UNCA but now … [to] hell with that dictatorship … The members [don’t] have any idea they are responsible for it.” Rampelotto claims the reason for the investigation is that Lee frequently scoops his colleagues.
Could the UNCA investigation threaten Lee’s UN accreditation? A spokesperson of MALU says that the UNCA investigation would not “directly influence” their decision on reaccrediting Lee. However, the guidelines state that accreditation is given on the basis of agreement between the Department of Public Information, the office of the spokesperson of the Secretary General, the Office of the president of the General Assembly, and the UNCA.
A voluntary press association should not have an impact on whether or not its members are accredited by the organization they cover. While the UNCA has every right to kick out a bully from its club, the UN is under-covered as it is, and a muckraking reporter like Lee will keep the mainstream reporters on their toes. Although Lee may be someone that few of us would want to work with, an institution like the UN could use an outsider who enjoys highlighting its missteps.
Richard Armstrong is an Editorial Assistant at World Policy Journal
(Photo courtesy of Flickr user Utenriksdept)
CORRECTED: The Wall Street Journal published a story on the plan to deploy UN observers in Libya on June 29th, before Inner City Press published the leaked UN report