Backstage with the UN correspondents

Breaking an exclusive story amid a consistently massive output of embargoed press releases and communications of all sorts is often mission impossible, especially since the pandemic has dramatically decreased face-to-face encounters. It’s the kind of feat that arouses envy within the clique.

The UN press room in Geneva has a solemn air about it. Behind the massive wooden desk of the UN Information Service (UNIS) sit the organization’s spokespeople. Next to them, the guest representatives of the various Geneva-based UN specialized agencies await their turn to speak. Due to the war in Ukraine, a number of them appear remotely, as they have been deployed in the field. In a few months, the room will be gone, replaced by a slick, optimized “media center.”

For the UN press corps, the twice-weekly briefings are a ritual and a tether, permanently inscribed in their calendar. On Tuesday and Friday mornings, invariably, they receive an email with the agenda of the meeting and a Zoom link for those who cannot attend in person. Visiting journalists from around the world sometimes join the hard-core group of permanent Geneva correspondents, a cross-generational crowd including old hands who have been at it since before the invention of the mobile phone and social media (a scourge for some, who think it has killed the job) and a fresh batch of reporters who, upon their arrival, discover both the complexity of their new beat and how intimidating and opaque the organization they will have to cover can be.

In its diversity, the group of full-time UN Geneva correspondents mirrors, politically and geographically, the makeup of the world. They form a clan or coterie, but behind the camaraderie created by being together so often, covering briefings from the UN or diplomatic missions, there is fierce competition between them as they work at warp speed to file their reports and bring the UN’s activities to the world.


Many of the Palais’ permanent correspondents have been around for years, regularly engaging in friendly gossip with their local counterparts. The group atmosphere is light, but should not be misconstrued; the nature of the work makes this batch fiercely competitive. Breaking an exclusive story amid a consistently massive output of embargoed press releases and communications of all sorts is often mission impossible, especially since the pandemic has dramatically decreased face-to-face encounters. It’s the kind of feat that arouses envy within the clique.

Emma Farge, who has been in Geneva with Reuters for the past five years, broke one of those sought-after stories over the summer. The Bermuda native, who has mastered French over the years, uncovered a letter in which China asked the United Nations to bury a highly critical report about its activities in Xinjiang Province. “I was pretty proud of that piece,” she admits modestly as she sips her coffee before a Tuesday briefing. “Most of the time, I try to pick a priority story—in theory, we could do up to ten a day. As a correspondent, one gets a feel for what’s newsy and what’s not. The article that hits the editor’s sweet spot is the one that will provide valuable insight to Reuters’ investors while saying something interesting to the public. Though the most critical stories tend to be the most important ones in my experience, I happen to enjoy happy news from time to time—I just covered the local two-headed tortoise’s 25th birthday. I also went to the Alps over the summer for a piece on melting glaciers. My work here in Geneva can be very diverse.”


When they’re following the UN’s routine beat, news agency reporters are comfortable outsiders; navigating the Palais’ secrets with the ease that comes with knowing the territory in detail while bearing the heavy social responsibility of their investigative essence. “After a while, you get to know people who are willing to talk anonymously,” confides Laurent Sierro, who works for Keystone-ATS. The relaxed, forty-something Valaisan has been a familiar face at the Palais for almost a decade, facing some serious challenges as a journalist, such as the media-censured visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the UN in 2017. “China wanted to be more committed to multilateralism, yet was sending a contradictory message to the world,” he recounts. “The UN can have limitations from member states, but this was the first time that a country [had] organized a closed event that excluded the press in Geneva. The visit was more of a bilateral encounter between states, except in this case there was a big audience present.” He adds: “I don’t believe that the UN bowed down to China by keeping reporters out, but it was unusual.”

In an ideally-placed office facing the UN flags so popular with Instagrammers, Sierro enjoys the independent and solitary nature of his work. His writing is a learned mix of human rights, humanitarian affairs, global health, the climate crisis, world trade, and international tech news. “Before the fusion of the Agence télégraphique Suisse (ATS) with Keystone in 2018, I was also covering Geneva’s private sector, but I have focused on multilateralism since,” he explains. “It’s difficult to make this particular part of Geneva compelling to the rest of Switzerland—especially to the German-speaking part. As the host country, we try to be generous with our information and I write anywhere from two to ten pieces a day.”

Moussa Assi, who has been reporting from Geneva for Al Mayadeen TV (Lebanon) the past five years, covers the city’s news with a different perspective. Every month, he produces five to six video pieces and a handful of news briefs tailored to the Arab world. “It is common knowledge that the West dominates the UN’s discourse,” he points out.

For Assi, the international community’s bias is consequential. “Palestine’s aid from Western countries has been reduced significantly since the beginning of the Ukrainian conflict; from 2 billion dollars to 317 million, according to a recent report.” He concludes: “The UN needs to be an independent entity which does not cave into the pressure of financially stronger member states.”


The East-West tensions are often at the heart of UN reporting—as was the case for the many journalists covering the release of the controversial report on Xinjiang province in China from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The highly sensitive document was sent out just a few minutes before midnight, followed moments later by chief Michelle Bachelet’s permanent leave of office; a situation that left an exhausted crowd of correspondents frustrated in their requests for comment.

Antonio Broto, who has been writing from Geneva for the Spanish news agency EFE for the past four years, was one of the reporters who had to analyze the OHCHR’s document at the late hour: “It was annoying, but not that surprising for me. I was stationed in China before coming here, and I know how much transparency [is lacking] in the country. In the end, a big part of the job in Geneva is about being an efficient translator of complicated content. We get complex reports all the time that we have to summarize within tight deadlines. That’s what we’re here for.”

As a freelancer, Gabriela Sotomayor, who has been working as a UN correspondent since 2008, has a different approach. Covering the UN is not, for her, about summarizing reports but rather anticipating the impacts of such studies beyond Geneva. Originally employed by Notimex, a Mexican news agency, the outspoken specialist now writes for the weekly outlet Proceso and makes occasional on-air appearances during major events. Each week, she also puts her penmanship at the service of “Naciones Hundidas” (a pun that translates as “Sunken Nations”), a chronicle in the newspaper Eje Central dedicated to International Geneva’s shortcomings: “My job is exhausting and exhilarating at the same time, she says. I always need to find original angles to mainstream news and then tailor them to a Mexican audience. It’s a considerable task because there are so many things going on in this town.”

To make things harder, the Mexican columnist has found that her work has become more demanding with the current remote working trend. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, it’s been harder to get information. People are often not on-site, while online press conferences leave little room for questions. One needs to ask the same thing in many ways and look for specialists to get quotes, especially on human rights issues,” she laments. Though she believes that “there is no conspiracy against journalists,” she highlights that the “increasing difficulty in accessing information is very convenient for the UN.”

Magali Beuchat, who was hired a little over a year ago by the Japanese agency Kyodo News, echoes Gabriela’s complaints. Her newcomer status, coupled with her geographical distance from Japan, has led her to realize how hard it can be to get a quote. “Access to information is not always easy due to the logistics behind the various UN agencies,” she admits. “WHO is completely off limits for most reporters and there are so many different spokespeople throughout the different agencies. I understand the difficulties endured by the communicators, who need to be transparent while accommodating member states, but these dynamics make my job extremely challenging.”

Beuchat and her colleagues are not the only ones striving to translate and explain—sometimes by scrutinizing it—the UN and the broader international Geneva ecosystem. Across the table, public affairs officials are trying to strike a balance between the journalists’ demands for transparency and their obligation to remain neutral while serving their institution and its member states. A feat that is arguably one of the toughest communication assignments in town.