Refugees in Southern Sudan today. (Photo: UNHCR)

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Shortly before Christmas in the mid-1980s, the civil war in Ethiopia produced a renewed surge of refugees into neighbouring Sudan. Bombed and strafed by planes of the military junta in Addis Abeba, civilians began converging on the Sudanese frontier in search of haven. For UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, this was the beginning of yet another humanitarian crisis. It was also one which urgently needed international attention. The trouble was that there were almost no journalists on the ground to cover the story.

Undaunted, Michel Barton, a French-American UNHCR official, got on the phone to his journalist contacts around the world. Within hours, he had persuaded a small group of foreign correspondents representing Le Monde, Christian Science Monitor, Guardian and other newspapers to abandon their holiday plans and make their way to Khartoum. For those news organizations with limited budgets, Barton dispatched pre-paid airline tickets.

One of them was me, a special correspondent of the Monitor normally based in Paris, but in Barbados at the time attending a friend’s wedding. I immediately contacted my editor who gave me the go-head to fly half-way across the world to report the story. For the Boston-based newspaper, refugees had always been a priority. I had even reported a global refugee series totalling 30 articles (30,000 words), which was reprinted for schools as an educational supplement. For this, I had travelled from Pakistan to the Thai-Cambodian border to Cameroon, Somalia and even French Guiana, wherever there were refugees.

On arrival in Khartoum, we found ourselves whisked up to the northeastern town of Kassala in a UN vehicle, a jolting nine-hour journey along an eroded tarmac highway. All of us were experienced reporters with a good knowledge of Africa, but also wars and refugee crises. We quickly produced stories which were picked up by other media, including the BBC World ServiceVoice of AmericaDeutschewelle and other international broadcasters. These immediately drew world-wide attention, including urgently needed donor assistance.

Western journalists on a food break in northern Afghanistan during the mid-1980s. (Photo: Edward Girardet archives)

Bona fide journalists: No UN accreditation needed

None of us required special accreditation to the United Nations. One reason was that UNHCR, as with select other aid organizations, fully understood how to work with reporters. They knew that we would not only provide critical coverage, but also credibility. As Barton demonstrated, there was a degree of ‘camaraderie’ and mutual respect amongst the humanitarians and the press that served both sides. You learned who to trust and who to rely on for professional integrity.

Many of these often rough-shod foreign correspondents tended to pop up in similar situations around the world: Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Horn of Africa, Central America… Whether The Washington Post, Corriera della Sera or The Times, we were well-versed in humanitarian and development operations enabling us to produce compelling on-the-ground stories with historical context. Our coverage had far greater impact than any of the promotional PR efforts, including social media engagement, embraced today by so many international organizations, including the UN. One of the reasons was that audiences trusted us. After all, it was a BBC journalist who had broken the Ethiopian famine during the early 1980s despite the fact that most aid agencies knew what was happening.

For the savvy aid groups, not just UN agencies but also organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins sans Frontières, the need to cultivate a world-wide network of journalists has always been crucial. Whether for an established news organization or a lone freelancer reporting for diverse media, this included providing in-the-field support; a tented bed for the night perhaps, a 4×4 ride to a refugee camp or even a free seat on a plane to difficult-to-access war and humanitarian crisis zones. They understood that informed coverage was pivotal for fund-raising and communicating reliably with the public-at-large.

ICRC and Red Crescent representatives in Syria. International aid organizations, such as the International Red Cross, rely on local and international journalists to cover wars and humanitarian crises. (Photo: ICRC)

The foreign correspondent: an endangered species

The bad news is that those days are now largely gone. The foreign correspondent has become an endangered species. And we are far worse off because of it. The rise of the Internet, loss of advertising revenue for print publications to Facebook, Google and other digital megaliths, and the failure by news organizations to come up with appropriate business plans have all contributed toward the drying-up of reliable information.

Equally crucial has been the failure of both media and governments to work more closely with schools. (See our Youth Writes initiative). We have not only abandoned our responsibilities to ensure that young people understand the critical importance of independent journalism, but also how to discern what is credible — and what is not — in social media. Youth are potentially our future audiences; if we lose them, then we will have lost responsible journalism, and even democracy.

We are also in danger of abandoning our ability to remain informed about international stories that matter, whether how the Chinese are rapidly imposing themselves on Africa in a bid to control natural resources or how populist and authoritarian regimes from Europe and the Middle East to Latin America are steadily eroding our human rights.

And yet, apart from major news organizations such as the New York Times, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Radio France Internationale or CNN, most have cut back on — if not halted — their global coverage. Few are willing to invest in the sort of quality coverage that is crucial to help people better understand what is happening elsewhere in the world. For residents of Missoula, Montana or Barcelona, Spain, to argue that what happens in Zambia, Afghanistan or Indonesia does not affect their lives is dead wrong. Their livelihoods may depend on whether consumer countries such as Russia or Saudi Arabia can get better deals on copper or farm prices with such countries.

Furthermore, the bulk of international reporting today is now carried out by freelance journalists (See our piece by Tira Shubart), particularly of crises such as Yemen, Syria or Burma. Often poorly paid without proper editorial or logistical backup, many of these reporters, photographers, videographers or broadcasters simply do not have the funds to report fully and independently. And yet the aid agencies — and the public — rely on them.

All this comes at a time when we need trusted journalism more than ever, particularly in an age of cyber abuse where institutional lying, social media manipulation and a general undermining of newsgatherers by the likes of Trump, Boris Johnson or Putin have become the norm. Much of what we find online, whether through Twitter, Instagram, WhatsAppSnapchat or Facebook, simply cannot be trusted.

The Place des Nations in front of the United Nations headquarters in Geneva with the three-legged Handicap International anti-landmine wooden ‘chair’ on the left. (Photo: Edward Girardet archives)

While some argue that local journalists, citizen bloggers or even human rights and environmental advocates can now do the job, foreign correspondents often have the advantage of broader and more informed perspectives. Furthermore, most local reporters, including their families, can come under far greater pressure by repressive regimes, criminal gangs, multi-corporate interests and guerrilla factions. Whether in Tanzania, Thailand or Mexico, locally based journalists must often remain quiet; their lives may depend on it. If the going gets hot, the visiting journalist can always leave — and then report from elsewhere. Foreign correspondents can usually manage to come and go as they please.

Remembering why the UN was created

So why is the United Nations entering the business of information control, or ‘cleansing’ as the UN’s information director in Geneva has put it so disconcertingly?

When the United Nations was founded in San Francisco at the end of World War II, the idea was to do better than the League of Nations with its failed “never again” approach. This included supporting a new global culture of peace, stability and mutual understanding amongst the peoples of the UN Charter; freedom of expression was a vital part of this mandate.

Journalists during the days of the League of Nations in the 1930s. They helped put both the League and Geneva on the map but the international community’s call for “war – never again” failed. (Photo: UN archives)

With the establishment of the UN’s European headquarters in Geneva in 1946, numerous journalists from around the world based themselves out of the art-deco former League of Nations building overlooking Lake Geneva. They were there not solely for the UN, but to cover international stories such as the wedding of Princess Grace of Monaco in 1956, Hurricane Donna in the Caribbean and Florida in 1960, the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe talks in 1979, death squads and massacres El Salvador during the 1980s, and the first world landmines conference in Montreux in 1993.

For most journalists, the UN was simply part of their beat. Most stories related to what the UN represented worldwide, whether human rights, culture, health, weather, natural disasters, wars, environment… All that was needed was a bona fide press pass. As I would often do, journalists based in London or New York, would also pass through Geneva for background briefings with various UN and other international organizations before venturing on to crisis zones such as Angola, Sudan or Afghanistan. In this manner, we would have a mix of facts, figures and insights, but also crucial on-the-ground contacts. As a world knowledge hub, Geneva was — and still is — unprecedented.

Until 9/11, the Palais des Nations remained largely open to outsiders, in other words, “the people.” NGOs and ordinary citizens had free access; little prevented them from entering the premises to meet with journalists or representatives from different UN offices. This was good for everyone, including the UN.

Today, ostensibly for security reasons, the UN is increasingly cutting itself off, a highly dangerous precedent that is threatening its very existence. And this despite efforts by the UN’s previous Geneva director, the Danish diplomat Michael Møller, to open up the UN more to “international Geneva” and the world.

The UN, however, is today restricting journalistic access, particularly of freelance reporters, by focusing more on officially approved media, such as the Chinese, Indians or Turks. It also seeks to dictate how reporters should be covering the UN. When Chinese President Xi spoke at the UN in Geneva in January 2017, for example, the press were not even allowed in the observers’ gallery.

Anja Niedringhaus, a Geneva-based photographer, who covered UN-related issues primarily while reporring around the world. She was killed in Afghanistan by a police officer in April, 2014 in Khost province. AP writer Kathy Gannon, who is based in Islamabad was severely injured during the same attack. (Photo: Courtesy AP)

Reporting the UN is not just about covering conferences or press briefings, but having unconstrained and informal access to specialists who matter, whether over a coffee at the UN in Geneva, a chance corridor encounter at UNSCAP, the UN’s regional headquarters in Bangkok, or getting onto a World Food Programme plane in Mogadishu or Banda Aceh. Likewise, when a press conference takes place the organization has often already decided what story it wants, rather than listen to what journalists need to tell it.

The UN: recognizing independent reporting

UN efforts to restrict open journalism severely endanger the organization’s original mandate for freedom of expression. Whether a journalist chooses to mention the UN, MSF or Human Rights Watch, is of no one’s concern. What does matter are the issues covered: climate change, pandemics, migrants, refugees, wars, human rights, world trade, conservation and environment, access to health…The list is long and global. Journalists are there to report, not to promote. (See the piece for us by Kathy Gannon and the report by the Center for International Media Assistance on UN responsibilities in support of free and independent press around the world as part of the UN Charter)

Many of today’s reporters operate globally, if not purely via the Internet. Nor are they necessarily representative of a single news organization. Most work for themselves, or for several or more outlets. Many, too, travel. So why not a world-wide accreditation enabling one to enter any UN office whether in New York, Geneva, Copenhagen, Vienna, Bonn, Nairobi, Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur? The UN should be making it easier for journalists to report, not more difficult.

A Global Fund for Public Interest Journalism: How the United Nations, international aid agencies and donors could help support independent reporting world-wide.

There is a Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, Malaria and TB, so why not one for public interest reporting? The UN, international donors but also NGOs and foundations need to be contributing toward the costs of independent reporting as part of their commitment toward informing in the public interest. UN agencies from UNHCR to UNICEF and the World Health Organization would find themselves far better served by supporting the coverage of key themes, whether migrants, refugees, cultural destruction or climate change, and then posting their articles, videos, podcasts and photography on their own platforms.

Furthermore, the UN would not have to assume responsibility for outside editorial content. No matter how critical, articles or video segments produced by the NYT, Guardian, Die Welt, Le Monde, El Pais, BBC, Al Jazeera and others would have far more credibility than promo’ pieces posted on UN sites, which are not necessarily read or trusted. They come across as PR, not reporting. Based on multiple information sources from different countries, internationally diverse and above all independent coverage would not only benefit the UN mandate, but the ‘people’.

A number of media groups, including Global Geneva, our online magazine, are now proposing the creation of an editorially independent Global Fund for Public Interest Journalism. This would support both local and international journalists with reporting grants around the world to help cover key issues, whether the plight of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean, corruption in West Africa or human abuses in Burma (Myanmar). And any content supported by such a fund would be made available to any media world-wide, including UN platforms.

According to a January 2020 report by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), which is based in Washington, governments barely contribute 0.3 per cent of their development budgets toward high quality and independent journalism, notably the form of coverage which contributes to building “stable, secure, resilient, and well-informed societies”. On the basis of its interviews, CIMA maintains that many international donors would like to ramp up the support provided to media development, “recognizing that a failure to marshal a global response to the complex challenges in the media sector imperils the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

The UN urgently needs to change its vision toward independent journalism. So does the international community. If citizens expect their governments to fund education and health care, then why not public interest journalism to ensure that societies are properly informed? A functioning and independent press is also vital to basic democracy. One such step forward could automatically include contributing one per cent of every donor grant for the UN or any NGO to such a Global Fund. It would make a world of difference.

Swiss-American journalist Edward Girardet reporting for The Christian Science Monitor and the PBS NewsHour in eastern Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. (Photo: Edward Girardet archives)

Edward Girardet is a Geneva and Bangkok-based journalist and author as well as editor of Global Geneva, the world-wide online version of our magazine, focusing on global issues. He is also director of Youth Writes, an initiative of the non-profit Global Geneva Group, that seeks to inform young people about the role of quality journalism and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs.

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