Given the oil-for-food and peace-keepers-for-sex scandals in the United Nations of late, one might expect the press corps covering that international body to conduct their own business in the most scrupulous manner. But recent reports and complaints suggest that even the United Nations Correspondents Association is not whistle-clean.
From the outside, the UNCA and the doings of its officers may seem insignificant. The group has no more than 180 members, and its annual dues—after a 30 percent increase to $65—will generate little more than $11,000 in 2005, according to several members. Donations from outside organizations bring the total annual budget to some $30,000, they say. In short, the UNCA hardly compares—in size or import—to, say, the National Press Club.
The UNCA is a not-for-profit membership organization, insiders say, whose associates represent most major U.S. and international newspapers and, of course, broadcast networks. Journalists centered at the United Nations are presumably assigned to cover the General Assembly, Security Council and all ancillary U.N. departments and organizations with an impartial eye.
“Journalists lynch every public official caught in any impropriety, so we should hold ourselves to the highest of standards,” says one UNCA member, explaining his benchmark for professional conduct. “At our paper, if you accept work or free trips [from sources], you're fired.”
The UNCA leadership and some of its members, on the other hand, seem mired in such conflicts of interest. The group fails to censure members who work for the United Nations or member states. Its members go on all-expense-paid junkets. The group takes funding from from political activists and outside organizations that could also affect UN coverage. And in perhaps the biggest blunder of all, the UNCA hired as its “office administrator” one member who just happened to lack appropriate U.S. working papers.
The swirl of controversy focuses especially on former UNCA president Ian Williams, a freelance journalist covering the UN for The Nation (among others). A February 15 investigative report by Accuracy in Media highlighted his work for the United Nations Development Program, among other agencies. As Williams discloses on his website, "He has produced several booklets for UN agencies, including one on Portugal and aid to Africa, another on ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations], and on the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea....” He also edited the 2001 report for the United Nations Council on Trade and Development and “and helped draft the press-kit for the 2002 Arab Human Development Report for UNDP.” Hardly disinterested.
On February 16, a discerning reporter raised this point at the daily United Nations press briefing, and asked for a list of reporters who had worked for the U.N. “To my knowledge no journalist is paid to work for the United Nations while they are also working as a journalist for some media outlet,” said spokesman for the Secretary General Fred Eckhard.
Perhaps, but Ian Williams has worked for several agencies at the UN, and also works for several groups as a journalist, including Maximsnews.com, Alternet and Salon. Even if he is willing to accept such work from the United Nations, its agencies should not offer it.
The embarrassing truth made national news when Brit Hume featured the item in his Political Grapevine. Then on February 23, Williams appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, where he lamely attempted to defend himself. Williams, unashamed, answered the criticism with a piece in MediaChanel.org, entitled Confessions of a Payola Pundit. He earned merely $150 from the U.N. system in 2004 “for interviewing Hans Blix on United Nations Television,” he declared, forgetting to mention his work for the U.N. in earlier years. He added:
I will pretty much write for anyone who pays me, as long they do not dictate what I write. Although I charge much more for boring commissions. And I will hold up my list of exposes of the UN for
everything from sexual harassment, pandering to big powers, conniving with the CIA, and covering up the bronze elephant's organ in the gardens (honest!) next to any other journalist. But when the UN is maligned out of conservative malice and prejudice, then I will spring to its defense.
In other words, Williams is not independent at all. In response to FrontPage, he called the questions “flakey.”
The news garnered by the national pundits is only a small slice of the story, however, and apart from Fox, none of the mainstream media has picked it up.
Not only was Ian Williams on the United Nations payroll. So apparently is immediate past UNCA president Tony Jenkins, who writes for Expresso in Portugal and sometimes hosts the United Nations World Chronicle television program. Both reporters take an exceedingly anti-American line.
“Who pays me and for what, where I travel and for whom, is none of your business,” wrote Tony Jenkins in response to a query. “I have never tilted my reporting to suit anyone. I report the truth.”
Likewise, in 2001, National Public Radio correspondent Linda Fasulo received $15,000 from the U.N. Foundation and $11,000 from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to cover research for her subsequent pro-U.N. book, An Insider's Guide to the U.N.
Current president Jim Wurst, who works for Ted Turner's U.N. Wire and Global Security Newswire, defends them. In early February, Wurst, Williams and Jenkins published a letter entitled “The Far Right Attack on United Nations Correspondents... and a Reply” over the Maximsnews.com email “wire service.” They wrote, “we owe allegiance to no one and nothing but good, hard, critical—but fact based—reporting. We are a proud, feisty and independent association of journalists.”
For his part, Wurst replied in a snippy email, UNCA's mandate to members from 50 countries is "to maintain and protect the freedom and prestige of Press, Radio and Television correspondents in all their relations with the United Nations,” as stated in the organization's constitution. UNCA holds press conferences “to assist journalists in the performance of their duties,” and defends “our members collectively and individually from assaults on their free speech rights, from the United Nations or anyone else.” In 2003, for example, following construction of a new wall near the Security Council entrance, UNCA then-president Jenkins “publicly challenged Kofi Annan... to remove this obstacle to press access. It was removed.”
As to reporters' ethics, however, Wurst commented, “I am not a nanny or a cop. Journalists operate according to rules of their organization and their consciences.” Asked whether UNCA should institute an ethics code, Wurst considers the idea “impractical” since “we are not an enforcement agency.”
But several UNCA members have accepted all-expense-paid junkets. Following a 2004 trip to Taiwan, reports one UNCA insider, other members of the group suddenly made Taiwan into a hot story. There was also a trip to Sweden, he said, on which correspondents accepted pocket money from their hosts. “How can you expect to be impartial after what you do,” complains a UNCA member who requested anonymity. Wurst refused to comment on trips taken by any of UNCA's members, or indeed any matter relating to individual conduct.
However, Jenkins avowed, “The Swedish trip was an effort by the Swedish government to ensure broad media coverage of the conference on genocide prevention, an initiative backed by the Bush administration. Are you suggesting that, but for Stockholm's generosity, these journalists would have written in favor of genocide?” Of course not, but Sweden's generosity might make reporters more generous towards Sweden.
He also claimed, by way of defense, that the U.S. is the largest provider of such trips to foreign journalists. A check with the U.S. State Department Bureau of Education and Culture, however, contradicted that contention. The State Department offers trips to the U.S. to foreign politicians, scientists, professionals and journalists alike, not as press briefings, but to “to let them see who we are, what we are and what we do [in a democracy],” says Steve Pike, a spokesman for the State Department. “They are not junkets. And we let them ask any questions they want. It's informational and educational.” The object is not to make news, but to spread democracy.
UNCA also takes funding from George Soros' political action funds, and from Ted Turner, according to AIM. Insiders say two thirds of the group's annual budget comes from such outside sources. Concerning this point, Wurst sees no conflict. All of the money, he claims, “goes to the prize winners, none to UNCA.” Therefore the funds do “not buy positive coverage. The organizations giving the prize money give it without strings attached and are not involved in the judging of the entries.” Maybe, but Ted Turner employs Wurst, at least indirectly.
UNCA's goal as stated in its constitution, Wurst claims, is “To take whatever measures possible to protect the rights of bona fide correspondents to secure accreditation and unhindered access to the United Nations Headquarters or regional offices, and to their normally available facilities without discrimination.”
Interesting, since several UNCA members reported that former president Tony Jenkins threatened many members with revocation of their credentials if they questioned the leadership's ethics or leaked information to outsiders. He knows officials at the U.N., he reportedly told at least four individuals, who would yank their credentials. Jenkins denies making such threats. Wurst refused to comment.
But the worst of the UNCA behavior concerns Williams' apparent self-dealing inside UNCA. In January, 2004, UNCA's then-president Tony Jenkins hired Williams' wife Anora Mahmudova, a citizen of Uzbekistan and BBC Uzbekh Service employee, as an “office administrator.” Williams refused to answer questions on this score or any other until FrontPage released all its sources of income, advertising and funding.
As a recently naturalized U.S. citizen, Jenkins should have known the position was illegal for Mahmudova. Williams, a British-born journalist in the U.S. since 1989, should also have known that his wife could work legally in the U.S. only for the Beeb Uzbekh Service, for whom, she has told several colleagues, she holds a U.S. I-visa.
Such media visas are exclusive to the press, according to the U.S. State Department. All foreign journalists are required to have them. Under these visas, moreover, foreign reporters are prohibited from working except for the organizations that sponsored them in the first place, and only then for the dissemination of news. “Applicants must demonstrate that they are properly qualified to be issued a media visa,” according to the State Department.
Under immigration law, media visas are for 'representatives of the foreign media,' including members of the press, radio, film or print industries, whose activities are essential to the foreign media function, such as reporters, film crews, editors and persons in similar occupations, traveling to the U.S. to engage in their profession.
In other words, the fact that Mahmudova received upwards of $15,000 in salary from the UNCA in 2004—the largest chunk of the organization's annual budget—was strictly illegal. Mahmudova flaunted this fact, informing many individuals that she did not have papers necessary to work for UNCA. But she did it anyway; for his part, according to several sources inside the UN, Williams facilitated the arrangement. Only when it was suggested that Mahmudova's labor for UNCA might be illegal was she dismissed from the position fully a year after she was hired—with a two week bonus for her trouble.
At its February 15 general meeting, UNCA passed a resolution prohibiting the organization from hiring immediate relations of any UNCA members. But of course, that still leaves the door open for other unethical practices by UNCA members. And no one has proposed resolutions suggesting that association clean up its act.
“I am totally disgusted with the whole organization,” says another reporter.
As well he should be.