Turtle Bay

Chamber of secrets

The U.N. Security Council took a break this week from managing crises in Iran and Sudan and adopted a series of measures that would impose greater control and secrecy over the body’s deliberations. The 15-nation council has barred a note-taker from the U.N. secretary-general’s press office from attending the council’s consultations, and asked the U.N. ...

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

The U.N. Security Council took a break this week from managing crises in Iran and Sudan and adopted a series of measures that would impose greater control and secrecy over the body’s deliberations.

The 15-nation council has barred a note-taker from the U.N. secretary-general’s press office from attending the council’s consultations, and asked the U.N. to reduce the number of experts it sends to Security Council meetings. At the same time, U.N. diplomats not serving in the council have been prevented from entering the council’s inner sanctums to await the council’s decisions.

The changes underway come as the United States and other big powers have expressed growing disquiet that the details of the council’s closed-door sessions are too frequently leaked to reporters. Taken together, their actions could result in the strongest setback to transparency in the council’s actions in years, according to some U.N. officials and council diplomats.

The steps have been implemented as the council moves from its landmark conference room with its iconic horseshoe table to a temporary suite of rooms in the U.N. basement. The move has also restricted the press’s access to a cordoned section — dubbed the "play pen" by one U.N. official — with no chance to buttonhole U.N. diplomats exiting the chambers. The arrangement was to remain in place until the renovation of the U.N.’s glass-and-marble headquarters is completed in three years.

The whole process has been shrouded in secrecy, and diplomats have provided varying accounts of who’s ultimately responsible for specific changes. But some of the 10 non-permanent members of the council said they were unaware of some of the most restrictive measures — for instance, who made the decision to bar diplomats from using the Security Council lounge, a privilege that non-members held in the previous council suite. But they suspect the council’s five permanent members, the United States, Russia, Britain, China, and France, are behind it.

A diplomat from a country with a permanent seat on the council challenged that view, saying the entire council had already been pressing for a smaller U.N. presence in consultations. The diplomat cited a December 2007 statement by the president of the Security Council urging the U.N. to "exercise restraint" in sending staff to Security Council talks. "A designated representative of the spokesperson for the secretary-general may participate in informal consultations at any time, unless the council decides otherwise."

But the five big powers have also privately defended some of the changes, citing security concerns, the need for greater confidentiality in their deliberations, and in the case of France’s U.N. ambassador, Gerard Araud, a desire to exit the chamber without having to cross a gauntlet of prying reporters. "The diplomats get irritated when they come close to journalists," quipped one council diplomat.

The move has prompted a public outcry from the U.N. press club, which convened an emergency meeting earlier this week to address press restrictions. The Committee to Protect Journalists, which typically criticizes repressive governments, has weighed in on behalf of the U.N. press corps, saying it is "hypocritical" for a U.N. body to promote press freedom around the world while curtailing it here.

"It sure seems like the Security Council [is trying] to put in place really major restrictions," Giampaolo Pioli, the president of the U.N. Correspondents’ Association, complained to Security Council President Yukio Takasu of Japan in a press conference after the new rules became clear. "We don’t know why. I’m asking you if the Security Council is afraid of the freedom of the press."

Takasu insisted that was not the case, but voiced sympathy with the reporters’ plight and has since stepped in to try to negotiate a compromise that would allow the press to regain some privileges lost in the move. The council’s political directors are holding meetings this week to address some of the complaints. But he also noted that the cramped space where the new U.N. council is situated would not allow for the same degree of free movement as before. The question of "press access has to be revisited," he said. He pledged to try to replicate the previous rights of access held by the press before the move, or at least to the extent possible.

The fight over press access coincides with a parallel effort by the United States, Russia, and other big powers to use the move to reassert greater control and secrecy over the council’s activities, and to stop the informal flow of information that routinely takes place between diplomats, U.N. officials, and reporters after closed-door council sessions.

Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has raised questions about the need for what she viewed as excessive numbers of U.N. secretariat staff in the council’s deliberations, according to council diplomats. Rice has previously complained about leaks of sensitive Security Council documents and the fact that the content of internal consultations is immediately shared with reporters. "I think there were concerns that leaks would be coming out of that end," said a council diplomat.

On Monday, the United States and other permanent members informed officials at the United Nations that the U.N. spokesman’s office would be barred from participating in the U.N. consultations, ending a practice that has existed as long as the U.N. press department can remember. "If you ask me it looks like the [five permanent members of the council] want to control everything," said a council diplomat. "And they are trying to keep the journalists at bay."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has not weighed in on the crisis. But his chief of state, Vijay Nambiar, asked the council in a letter to reconsider its decision, saying that Ban’s press office needed to follow the consultations as part of its support for the council’s presidency. But he promised to minimize the number of U.N. secretariat staff participating in U.N. debates, and said he would abide by the council’s orders if it chose to ignore his advice.

The United States maintains that it has sought to ensure maximum access for reporters. "The U.S. mission’s goal is that press have in the new space the same access to officials and diplomats they did in the old Security Council space," said Mark Kornblau, the spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations. "The U.S. mission views the international press corps as crucial players in the world of the U.N. Reporting done by media based in headquarters ensures the general public be informed about general developments at the United Nations, and that member states and U.N. officials are held accountable for the results of the work."

The chief objection of the U.N. press club (this reporter is not a member) is that the new press arrangement does not provide any space where diplomats and reporters could informally mingle, which the press maintains is vital to its ability to cultivate relations with diplomats and to receive informal briefings on the nuances of Security Council policies beyond the klieg lights of the public stakeout. It also allows the council diplomats to exit the council chamber without passing by the press corps. After initial protests, the U.N. press corps was given another cordoned section closer to the council chamber without any chairs.

But the U.N. security chief, Gregory Starr, who previously ran the State Department’s security services, continues to bar reporters from a centrally located stairway that leads from the new Security Council to the diplomats’ limousines. U.N. diplomats say that Starr is concerned about possible congestion on the stairs if diplomats stop to talk to reporters.

The U.N. press corps has continued to insist that they be given access to the stairs. "The public will see straight through the argument that delegates’ safety is enhanced by keeping them shielded from the press," said Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "Both diplomats and reporters are already inside a secure zone with visible ID. The United Nations should be a beacon for the human rights it was established to uphold. Those include freedom of expression and a free media. To deny reporters access to public officials would be hypocritical."

On the first day of the first Security Council session, Araud raised concerns about the unregulated movement of press outside the chamber, saying the council "needed some privacy, so we can leave without every step being watched by the journalists," according to a council diplomat. But his remarks quickly leaked to the press, placing France on the defensive. Araud subsequently backed down, and has since urged the council to seek an accommodation with the reporters.

The U.N. has gradually restricted press access through the U.N. headquarters since the September 11, 2001, attacks, initially barring press from entering the building through the main diplomats’ entrance, and cutting off access to the delegates lobby. At the request of Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s former U.N. ambassador, the U.N. once erected a glass barricade to bar press from approaching a now defunct bar outside the Security Council. Then Secretary-General Kofi Annan tore down the wall after reporters complained it would limit their ability to talk to diplomats.

Pioli, the president of the U.N. press club, sent an angry letter to this month to Japan’s Takasu, demanding the council back down from imposing "unjustifiable restrictions" on press access. Pioli said the proposed restrictions "would represent an unprecedented and unacceptable curtailing of the ability of reporters" to do their job. "We understand that several permanent members of the Security Council voiced their concerns about press access to delegations and support reducing our access under the guise of improving their delegates’ ‘safety.’"

U.N. officials say they cannot recall a serious terrorism incident involving a U.N.-accredited correspondent, but one official recalled at least two disturbances involving U.N. reporters in the 1990s. One involved the assault of a reporter by a colleague, and another involved a reporter stealing his colleagues’ equipment, one official recalled.

In the early 1990s, an investigation by New York counterterrorism officials once led to diplomats assigned to the Sudanese mission. Asked if he remembered the case, Sudan’s U.N. ambassador Abdalhaleem Mohamad smiled and urged Turtle Bay: "Please, don’t recall that." He went on to say that the allegations were "part of the fabrication" by the United States against his country.

But the crisis has provided him with an opportunity to take a poke at the council, which was meeting to raise concerns about a crackdown on the press, among other things, in the run-up to Sudan’s national elections. "Every day, the council is speaking about the need to lift press restrictions in certain countries of their choice. They themselves are not delivering what they are calling on others to do."

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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