World News

Charges of Censorship as U.N. Press Freedom Day Event Is Called Off

Posted May 3, 2018 10:42 p.m. EDT

In his World Press Freedom Day message on Wednesday, the United Nations secretary-general called a free news media “crucial to building transparent and democratic societies.” By the end of day, though, a U.N. group was itself facing accusations of censorship.

The group, the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations, “postponed” a panel discussion marking World Press Freedom Day and acknowledged asking a participant to alter a video presentation that had singled out countries with heavy restrictions on the news media.

The alliance, a political initiative of the United Nations, said in a statement that the event was put off because the scheduled time had conflicted with another World Press Freedom Day event.

But the alliance also called the planned videos “unbalanced” and said it had asked the participant, the News Literacy Project, to “either make a comprehensive presentation of all countries where press freedom is limited, or to remove reference to specific countries.”

The videos focused on “severe restrictions” on press freedom in Turkey, Mexico and Egypt, and included comments from Russian and Pakistani journalists, said Alan C. Miller, the chief executive of the News Literacy Project. He said an alliance official first asked his group to delete the reference to Turkey, and then said that no clips could be presented.

Turkey is considered by many groups to be the world’s leading jailer of journalists, imprisoning dozens at a time.

Miller, who was to moderate a panel discussion that included well-known journalists and the representatives of several press groups, said he refused to make the changes sought by the U.N. Alliance.

“I could not permit this censorship of our presentation due to the stated concern that it would offend one or more countries engaged in repression and violence against journalists,” he said on the group’s website.

Farnaz Fassihi, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was to have been on the panel, called on Secretary-General António Guterres to have the alliance’s top official resign.

Another would-be participant, Robert Mahoney, said the alliance’s actions undermined the world body’s work protecting the rights of free expression.

“United Nations bodies like UNESCO have worked hard promoting the safety of journalists and free expression around the world,” said Mahoney, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ deputy executive director. “But their work is undercut if member states that throw critical and independent journalists behind bars at home can censor voices through the U.N.'s own mechanisms abroad.”

The U.N. Alliance said it was “working actively” to schedule a new time for the panel discussion. But it may have to find some new participants. “I won’t attend any event hosted by @unaoc,” Fassihi said on Twitter, referring to the alliance.