New Escap rules a blow to press freedom

Imtiaz Muqbil writes that the change in the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific's media-accreditation system seems to come from a "blanket, guilty-until-proven-innocent policy"

Bangkok Post
Sunday, August 30, 2009

By Imtiaz Muqbil

Just three months after United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a lofty declaration on World Press Freedom Day (May 3) hailing the "important role of the media in addressing global problems", the security unit of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap) has scrapped the accreditation of a number of Bangkok-based journalists.

UN Information Services (Unis) chief Hak-Fan Lau vehemently denies as "completely baseless" any suggestion that this is a move to curb editorial freedom. Rather, he insists, it is to enhance the "security" of the UN's Ratchadamnoen regional headquarters and protect it from the kind of attacks that other UN buildings have faced in different parts of the world. How this handful of journalists pose a security threat remains unproven, especially as some have covered Escap for longer than many Escap staff themselves have been in this country.

This bizarre move now joins the record of changes being made at the august institution, which marks the 60th anniversary of its founding this year, under the watch of its first female executive secretary, Noeleen Heyzer, a Singaporean.

For years, Escap had a flawless media-accreditation system in place. Media that covered Escap regularly were issued a photo-ID card after clearance by Unis and registration with the security unit.

This gave them hassle-free access to all events and premises. Those who covered Escap on an ad hoc basis went through the usual registration procedures per event.

In spite of no reported security breach or misuse of the media ID cards, all have been yanked as part of a blanket, guilty-until-proven-innocent policy. Nothing was broken, but Escap felt it needed fixing anyway.

According to a circular, "UN security experts have assessed the situation and determined that Escap should follow the practices at UNHQ in New York, where annual ground passes are issued only to members of the resident press corps working in the building."

Claiming that the local journalists' "access to the UN compound to carry out your assignments will remain unimpeded", the circular adds, "day passes will be issued to journalists covering events at UNCC, and those with appointments/official business at the Secretariat Building will continue to be given access upon confirmation with the relevant offices/staff members by the receptionists".

Upon checking with the security chief, Mr Lau was told that "journalists should be given access without any hindrance in any of the following circumstances: a) invitation letter from meeting organiser; b) pre-registered with the meeting organiser and names submitted to security; c) valid press card; or d) in the absence of the above, confirmation over the phone by the organising office or Unis on the spot".

Media then have to go through the X-ray checks and get their badge for the event itself.

All in all, quite a time-consuming ordeal. No surprise, then, that the law of physics has kicked in, and the action has generated an equal and opposite reaction.

Marwaan Macan-Markar of Inter-Press Service (who is also the current president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand), narrated what happened when he arrived at Escap for an appointment with Mr Lau.

"By then I knew my UN press card was not valid and I had to register as all other visitors do. What I was not prepared for was the clearly inept performance of the UN security officer on duty. It took him nearly 15 minutes to process my visitor's badge because he could not locate Mr Lau's name nor contact details in his system. And I was the only person at the security booth at the time."

Another UN regular, Lance Woodruff of the Thai News Agency, found himself being shunted from one entrance to another as he tried to get access to Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz's lecture the previous Friday. "It made me feel most unwelcome," he said.

A third journalist, Lee Miller of Bloomberg News, told Mr Lau that after having spent a good deal of time pushing through Bangkok traffic on a motorcycle taxi, "it was a pity to undergo another time-wasting procedure, particularly if it is to be the case for every UN event from now on".

Interestingly, no attempt was made to consult with the media before the diktat from the "UN security experts" was carried out.

Clearly, when "security" calls the shots, tightening the screws becomes the norm. Not only does the resulting inconvenience become someone else's problem, installing all those whiz-bang new toys like electronic card-activated turnstiles (which, by the way, are so low than even a 12-year-old could vault them) provide an added thrill.

The increased nuisance-factor will further dampen the already low level of media coverage that Escap gets, compared to groupings like the Asian Development Bank and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation.

Escap is widely perceived to be an organisation in search of a raison d'etre. Few journalists have the time or patience to sit through its long-winded speeches, statements and presentations, mostly couched in politically correct "UNese" and crammed with diplomatic niceties.

Nevertheless, the UN still remains the region's best platform for convening the entire cross-section of the Asia Pacific community, from economists to environmentalists, sociologists to unionists, whose different perspectives and agendas generate healthy and enriching democratic debate. Instead of expediting and facilitating seamless media access to Escap forums, the opposite is happening.

In his World Press Freedom Day message, Mr Ban said, "This year the focus is on the media's potential to foster dialogue, reconciliation and mutual understanding. Indeed, the press plays a vital role in challenging entrenched attitudes about religious, political or other differences among people.

"Media can also give voice to minorities and marginalised groups, thereby enlarging and even reframing debate within a community or across communities.

"In societies struggling to rebuild after conflict, free and responsible news media are essential for good governance and to promote confidence and trust between leaders and the public."

He added, "Governments that stifle or otherwise obstruct this work are acting against their own best interests and that of their societies."

Well said, Mr Ban. But I don't think anyone at Escap heard you.