UNITED NATIONS – Three days after a veteran U.N. reporter who had filed unflattering stories was shut out of a U.N. event with her, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice is offering a “salute” to journalists on World Press Freedom Day.
However, some journalists at the U.N. have expressed criticism of the Obama-era U.S. mission for being closed to many in the press corps, and say that in rare instances when reporters are given access, little or no response to questions is forthcoming.
Rice has been the U.S./U.N. ambassador and an Obama cabinet member since January 2009, and is believed to be next in line to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.
“We salute the world’s journalists and honor all who serve the cause of press freedom,” she said today, adding, “The right to free expression is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, reinforced by a range of international treaties and written into numerous national constitutions.”
She then delivered a message from Barack Obama: “When universal rights are denied, when the independence of judiciaries or legislatures or the press is threatened, we will speak out.”
Obama’s statement continued: “In some cases, it is not just governments threatening the freedom of the press. It is also criminal gangs, terrorists, or political factions. No matter the cause, when journalists are intimidated, attacked, imprisoned, or disappeared, individuals begin to self-censor, fear replaces truth, and all of our societies suffer. A culture of impunity for such actions must not be allowed to persist in any country.
“This year, across the Middle East, North Africa and beyond, the world witnessed not only these perils, but also the promise that a free press holds for fostering innovative, successful, and stable democracies. On this World Press Freedom Day, we call upon all governments to seize that promise by recognizing the vital role of a free press and taking the necessary steps to create societies in which independent journalists can operate freely and without fear.”
Ironically, the comments praising press freedom come just as it is being revealed that the U.S. State Department is planning to buy, literally, its own media coverage worldwide.
According to planning documents that U.S. Trade & Aid Monitor located via routine database research, State’s Bureau of Public Affairs is soliciting the help of “global news coverage service providers” to create and disseminate department “news.”
The selected contractor will provide “full-time, 24/7 service,” the Statement of Work said.
“The department seeks a service provider for full, turn-key news-style global television coverage of ad hoc open press events featuring the Secretary of State and other officials across the United States and throughout the world,” according to the SOW, “and to send this content back to the Department’s Washington headquarters…”
Upon receiving these privately packaged productions, the department, in turn, “will distribute this video content to media organizations through an array of traditional and new media platforms.”
The walk at the U.S. mission hasn’t always matched the talk.
Among issues that have arisen recently: Rice’s office rejected a request from a longtime U.N. reporter, writing for WND, to attend a routine event. Also, her office’s decision not to provide details about why she spent an estimated $250,000 in taxpayer money on changes to her brand-new office.
Rice, who recently completed her term as the U.N. Security Council president for April, took some time last Monday to meet the press to discuss her activities in the council.
But she met only a small group of a little more than a dozen carefully selected reporters, leaving the vast majority of United Nations reporters (over 200) out.
In fact, records show that since Rice arrived at her U.N. post in January 2009, she has not held a single news conference or briefing open to the general U.N. press corps.
Her only two general press “availabilities” were in her capacity as a monthly Security Council president, but never as the United States permanent representative.
By contrast, John D. Negroponte held his first news conference as U.S./U.N. ambassador one month after taking office in January 2001.
When asked for an explanation, Rice’s acting spokesman, Kurtis Cooper, declined to respond either by phone or by email.
Efforts to reach Rice directly likewise were unanswered.
Monday’s event was a meeting with U.N. correspondents marking the end of the month-long tenure of Rice as chief of the Security Council. The WND reporter: Stewart Stogel, a 25-year U.N. correspondent who has also worked for ABC News, NBC News and been featured in many other news outlets including Time and Newsweek.
“Would appreciate the opportunity to attend Rice’s press reception as her Security Council presidency ends for April,” he wrote to Kornblau.
“When you start treating our Mission with professional courtesy and respect, we will be happy to reciprocate,” was Kornblau’s entire response.
Stogel asked for a further explanation but received none.
A surprised Stogel – one of the most senior U.N. correspondents, who values his long and cordial working relationships with everyone from John Bolton to Ban Ki-moon – told his WND editors he’s never experienced this kind of treatment from any administration except Obama’s.
Stogel, who also currently files stories for the Miami Herald and London Daily Mail, was warned earlier by U.S. officials that he might not be allowed to represent WND in his U.N. reporting, which is why he submitted his request in writing to attend the Rice meeting. He then asked Kornblau for an explanation after receiving his denial.
“I again ask you for particulars,” he wrote to Kornblau. “Mention stories you had a problem with. As I have said before … show me a wrong story and it can be corrected … no problem.”
The response from the mission to Stogel was silence. Kornblau later told WND: “The reception traditionally involves the working members of the U.N. press corps, Those who show up each day at the U.N. press stakeout and cover the U.N. on a daily basis. Your reporter is not among those.”
He also claimed the event “is not a press event,” adding, “This is a by-invitation diplomatic reception to which some reporters are invited as a courtesy.”
Further, he charged that the reporter “has shown a discourteousness toward the mission that I think unfortunately gives us no reason to extend a courtesy to him.”
He refused to elaborate, saying, “That’s as far as I want to go.”
One possible bit of “discourteousness” on Kornblau’s mind might have been the story from Stogel about Rice’s expenditure of $250,000 in taxpayers’ money for cosmetic changes to her new suite of offices at the U.S. mission to the U.N., directly opposite U.N. headquarters on Manhattan’s First Avenue.
Patrick Kennedy, the Undersecretary of State for Management, acting on behalf of Rice, said the public has no right to access the U.S. mission construction records, though it is a public building entirely financed by the U.S. taxpayer.
WND has fought many previous battles over media access barred by government gatekeepers. One of the biggest was a decade ago, in February 2002, when WND was denied accreditation to the Senate Press Gallery for routine access to cover the Capitol. But 10 days after WND threatened to sue every member of the Senate Press Gallery’s Standing Committee of Correspondents, who decide who is a “legitimate” news organization and who is not, WND was granted accreditation in September 2002. Subsequently, WND’s case against the Senate Press Gallery would be considered a groundbreaking legal precedent, paving the way for other online news groups to enter sacred ground previously reserved only for traditional Beltway news organizations.
More recently, WND was denied access by the Department of Transportation to a routine news conference in which then-Secretary Mary Peters defended the controversial Bush administration program allowing Mexican trucks to travel freely on U.S. roads.
Agency spokesman Duane DeBruyne, who was screening reporters at the security entrance of the federal building at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., said he did not have the authority to allow entry to WND senior staff writer Jerome Corsi, who has reported extensively on the program and attended other news conferences on the subject.
DeBruyne telephoned his supervisor, DOT spokeswoman Melissa DeLaney, who declined permission without explanation, demanding that WND leave the premises.
In a phone call to the DOT public affairs office, the agency explained it was requiring “press credentials” for admittance, and no one without them was allowed to participate.
The news conference was only for “credentialed members of the media,” spokesman Bill Moseley told WND. “There’s a specific credential. He did not have a media credential.”
And how can a reporter obtain such a credential resulting in permission to attend?
Responded Moseley, “I don’t know.”
Corsi, however, maintained he never was asked to produce media credentials of any kind, noting he had his usual press ID card issued by WND. Rather, said Corsi, DeBruyne immediately recognized him and apologetically explained that the department would “not accept your press credentials.”