Gag Order

Why is the U.N. censoring its own Syria news?

AFP / Getty Images
AFP / Getty Images

A recent visit to the website of the U.N.-funded news agency IRIN provides a quick tour of the world’s forgotten miseries: reports of child labor in Zimbabwe, profiles of the jobless in Sri Lanka, grisly accounts of ethnic killings in South Sudan and Central African Republic.

Absent from this chronology of global grief is anything new about Syria, the world’s bloodiest humanitarian crisis. In November, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which funds IRIN, quietly placed a gag order on its news agency. Its network of journalists were ordered to halt any reporting about the crisis in Syria, which has displaced millions and cost the lives of more than 100,000, according to U.N. sources.

There was never any public announcement explaining why the Syrian crisis, the largest humanitarian calamity in two decades, was now off limits.

Asked about the reporting blackout, OCHA spokeswoman Amanda Pitt hinted in an email to Foreign Policy that IRIN had decided on its own to stop covering Syria: "I expect that since the Syria crisis is so heavily reported by all the mainstream media, IRIN are re-focusing on their core work, i.e., reporting on the under-reported or neglected crises around the world."

Other U.N. officials privately challenged that explanation, claiming that OCHA had snuffed IRIN because of concerns that its reporting might complicate delicate diplomatic negotiations on access to needy Syrians, and also because its coverage often pointed out shortcomings in the United Nations’ humanitarian relief effort in Syria, where more than 2.5 million people have received little or no humanitarian assistance. In the months leading up to the decision to cut Syria coverage, the U.N. relief agency had blocked the publication of several stories, including one entitled: "Syrian aid operation: Fraught, yes. But failure? Not quite."

"As we enter the new year, we thought we’d share with you some stories that never saw the light of day in 2013 (even before the Syria gag order)," one U.N. official recently wrote in an email listing the titles of the censored articles to colleagues. "Happy New Year."

The United Nations has for months been in the thick of a series of sensitive diplomatic negotiations aimed at resolving the conflict and securing greater humanitarian access for aid workers. Some diplomats said IRIN’s reporting was curtailed to avoid the potential for an awkward story offending any of the key players. The interests of free reporting, it was feared, might clash with the United Nations’ efforts to pursue quiet diplomacy. On Jan. 22, for example, the United Nations will host, along with Russia and the United States, a major diplomatic meeting in Switzerland, aimed at prodding Syria’s warring parities to discuss a possible political transition.

But the challenges to IRIN’s editorial independence have extended beyond Syria. Senior U.N. officials have squelched reports dealing with sensitive issues in Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Iraq, where U.N. officials blocked publication of a story about the legacy of the 2003 bombing of a U.N. compound that killed 22 people.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United Nations has promoted journalism around the world, funding reporters and establishing local radio and television news operations in conflict zones. The clampdown on IRIN highlights a broader dilemma over the role of U.N. funded reporters: Are they essentially public information officers, assigned to promote the United Nations? Or are they independent reporters with the freedom to challenge the United Nations’ priorities and those of the U.N. backed government.

"In U.N. public information circles it is readily conceded that there are conflicts between a U.N. mission’s desire to use media for its own (albeit generally desirable) ends and its responsibilities as a local radio manager to adhere to U.N.-endorsed standards for independent journalism," Bill Orme, a U.N. official and former reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, wrote in a recent study.

In South Sudan, the U.N.-funded radio station, Radio Miraya, is the most popular radio broadcaster in the fledgling country. Miraya boasts that its "independence guarantees the impartiality of our journalism and ensures our credibility with the population."

But U.N. officials in New York don’t see the radio station as independent. Since South Sudan has been plunged into political and ethnic conflict, dividing the country’s Dinka and Nuer communities, Radio Miraya has served as a kind of megaphone for the U.N. mission’s public statements, while providing a sometimes one-sided platform for the South Sudanese government to make its case. That has, in turn, stirred concern that the station will come to be too closely identified with the interests of the government, and its large following among the Dinka.

Kieran Dwyer, a spokesman for the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping, said that Radio Miraya "is not and never was set up to be an independent radio station. Radio Miraya is a U.N. radio station set up under the mandate by the U.N. Security Council, and its purpose is to promote all the elements of peace and security in South Sudan." Among the station’s goals, he said, is "to promote interethnic harmony."

IRIN, the Integrated Regional Information Networks agency, was established in 1995 in response to lack of reporting on humanitarian crises that was exposed by the Rwandan genocide. The idea was to underwrite regular reporting of humanitarian crises ignored by mainstream media with the aim of broadening international awareness. The agency, which has bureaus in Dakar, Dubai, Bangkok, Johannesburg and Nairobi,  currently employs 54 staff members and more than 165 part-time stringers.

In 2008, John Holmes, who served as the United Nations’ emergency relief coordinator at the time, issued a set of guidelines indicating that the news agency was not a public relations wing of the humanitarian aid agency. "It is important to know that IRIN’s output is not subject to editorial control by OCHA’s country or regional offices, nor by other U.N entities," according to the internal guidance. "IRIN supports OCHA’s strategic goals; however, its reporting does not seek to promote OCHA or the UN per se, but to provide news, analysis and advocacy materials on the issues that concern the wider humanitarian community and affected populations."

But the fortunes of IRIN have suffered since then, its reporting staff buffeted by budget cuts — slashed from $11.2 million in 2008 to $7.9 million in 2013 — and increasing interference in its editorial independence. It also operates in a rapidly changing media environment. News agencies like Reuters Alertnet now cover similar ground; and many of the United Nations’ humanitarian agencies engage directly with the public through social media, including Twitter and Facebook.

"Several IRIN reporters admitted that the service[s] editorial independence has been eroding over time but differed on the implications and their own reactions to this trend," according to an internal evaluation of IRIN’s work. "Anticipatory self-censorship is being practiced in almost all bureaus. Some stories are shared with OCHA offices or sources before they are published."

"Any further erosion of IRIN’s editorial autonomy will undermine its very value in serving as an advocacy platform. This, in essence, is a catch-22 situation," according to the internal evaluation. U.N. officials said OCHA is considering shutting down IRIN or sharply scaling back its activities by the end of the year.

Pitt, the OCHA spokeswoman, confirmed that the aid agency has been engaged in a review of IRIN. "The original 1995 model served its purpose well, but we are living in a very different online news and social media landscape now," she said. "Once that review is complete, I imagine we’ll have some clarity on what future IRIN services will look like."

IRIN, meanwhile, is looking to go it alone.

Jan Egeland, the United Nations’ former emergency relief coordinator, said that he has been approached by several "very sad and quite desperate" IRIN veterans who are exploring ways to keep the operation funded in the event the U.N. cuts them off.

"We were proud to have IRIN in my time; I felt they were proactively and innovatively covering the so-called forgotten and neglected humanitarian crises that main stream media did not cover well," said Egeland. "They were often critical of the U.N. and I thought that was not troublesome or a problem. It was a strength that you have critical and self-critical voice within the U.N. family."

"Too much of what has been published by the U.N. and humanitarian organizations is so boring because it’s really just propaganda: look how great we are, look at how many lives we’ve saved, see how they are all smiling," he added. "In Syria, the reality is we are not getting through. We are not able to assist the besieged communities and those people caught in the cross-fire. Both the government and the opposition are blocking relief workers and the story needs to get out."

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

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