#119 The G|O Briefing, November 24, 2022
Human rights defenders cheer UN vote | Stop bothering us, UN tells the press | Alaa Abd El-Fattah is still in jail. His sister talks to The G|O |
This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter
Today in The Geneva Observer, we have both good and potentially disquieting news. Let’s start with the first.
Today, the Human Rights Council (HRC), the UN’s preeminent human rights body, accepted by a large margin the creation of a fact-finding mission to investigate Tehran’s brutal repression of the mass protests that have engulfed Iran since the death at the hands of the “morality police” of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman accused of wearing her hijab improperly. Her death has prompted an unprecedented wave of protest across the country and worldwide condemnation.
Proposed by Germany and Iceland, the resolution establishing the fact-finding mission was voted for overwhelmingly by 25 to 6, with 16 abstentions. The vote was seen here as an important test of the Council’s credibility after China and its allies were able to vote against a draft decision to discuss the situation in the Xinjiang province. The illustrated and annotated map of today’s vote complied by the KAS Foundation can be found here. (Full disclosure: The KAS foundation supports The G|O.)
Germany’s foreign minister Annalena Baerbock travelled to Geneva to address the UN body in person. Germany is not singling out Iran, she said, but simply asking the country to abide by its obligations under international law.
In opening the meeting, UN human rights chief Volker Turk told the Council that 14,000 people had been arrested and that “hundreds of university students have been summoned for questioning, threatened or suspended and barred from entering university campuses.”
Turk warned that “The old methods and the fortress mentality of those that wield power simply do not work; in fact, they only exacerbate the situation. We are now in a fully-fledged human rights crisis,” he said.
Applause greeted the passage of the resolution. Human rights defenders consider the creation of the fact-finding mission a milestone, as the newly created mechanism paves the way for possible prosecution before international courts. Sanctions imposed on Iran so far have had little effect on the regime.
“Civil society actors have been targeted and arrested from their homes and workplaces, among them human rights defenders, journalists, and lawyers. Arrested protesters continue to be denied access to a lawyer. Many face national security charges with lengthy prison sentences,” Turk said.
In a statement illustrating the extreme polarization of the UN body, Russia’s Ambassador to Geneva told the Council: “Such initiatives have nothing to do with concern for human rights. Their goal is to stigmatize and pressure the ‘undesirable’ states under human rights pretexts. […] The main goal of the initiators of this special session is to adopt another politicized resolution for the sake of rocking the domestic political situation in Iran. The task of the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms is to support the States, not to conduct investigations.”
Iran is unlikely to cooperate. Khadijeh Karimi, Tehran’s representative at the Geneva meeting, accused Western states of using the Council to target Iran, a move she called “appalling and disgraceful.”
“Democracy dies in darkness,” says The Washington Post’s motto. Multilateralism, too, we would add. Strongly convinced that an essential role of journalism is to speak truth to power and present the facts, we are greatly concerned to report the ongoing discussions between the UN and the Geneva press corps on proposed guidance that would further restrict press access to the UN Geneva campus.
ACANU, the UN correspondents’ association, has requested feedback from its members on a draft produced by the United Nations Information Service (UNIS). We have chosen to make our comments public, as we believe that the stakes are higher than they realize.
Among other new restrictions, journalists without an office on the campus could lose some privileges. This could impede access for smaller outfits and freelancers, including many from the developing world. We firmly believe that hindering the free circulation of certified professional journalists on the UN Geneva campus is a setback to a healthy and transparent discussion on how the UN operates. The draft guidelines will likely be revised, but the thinking behind them is worrisome. We are quite honestly stunned by the level of contempt they show for our profession.
Openness and transparency, not more opacity, are what is needed to help reinvigorate the UN. Reforming, upgrading and improving the UN, from the big ticket items like the UN Security Council to its daily operations, requires greater public scrutiny, not less. Protect and secure the UN Campus, of course. But a press card proving one is a certified bona fide journalist, regardless of how big one’s organization is, should be enough to get a correspondent in and allow them to do their job.
I write this as the Egyptian public intellectual and blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah continues to languish in jail under horrendous conditions, despite the massive mobilization by human rights defenders and civil society at large during COP27. One of his sisters, Mona Seif has been pressing for his release. We caught up with her to find out how her brother is doing following a water strike that almost left him dead.
As usual, it’s all below. As always, thank you for reading us.
UN PUTS A PRICE ON MEDIA ACCESS
By Sarah Zeines
A draft revision of the existing guidelines for UN correspondents proposes to curtail access to less prominent media and non-Geneva-based reporters. The document, currently under discussion between the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) and the Association of Accredited Correspondents at the United Nations (ACANU), is creating a major stir, bordering on outrage, among the Geneva press corps. It is widely seen as one more attempt at restricting press access to the UN’s Geneva campus.
From statutory regulations already in place that prevent direct access to international public servants to restricted access to some buildings and organizations, the constraints are many. In 2017, the Geneva press corps was not authorized to cover the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping and, more recently, was denied access to former UN human rights chief Michele Bachelet’s virtual briefing when she addressed the press at the end of her controversial visit to China.
Some journalists contacted by The G|O, however, are extremely reluctant, if not totally unwilling, to speak out. “Good story worth pursuing, but I am afraid I won’t be able to help you on this one,” writes one. Others are afraid that being critical might jeopardize their chances of being accredited, should they at some point apply for a press badge.
“Unfair and unacceptable discrimination.”
The idea that credentials would only be granted to organizations that rent an office at the UN is seen as particularly inequitable. “The UN is telling us that only money can allow coverage of UN and UN agencies activities,” one reporter observes. “This runs completely against the UN General Assembly’s resolutions.”
Ever since the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) released a draft revision of its press guidelines, UN correspondents have been trying to assess its concrete implications on their work. The document, at this stage at least, appears to issue more restrictive guidelines for long-time freelancers and independent media by distinguishing “resident correspondents”—those with an office on-site—from “non-resident correspondents”—those who operate from outside the Palais.
In recent months, small press organizations without an office on the UN grounds, including seasoned reporters with a history of coverage of the UN, have experienced an increasingly defensive attitude. Refusals to grant press cards, more thorough security checks at gate entrances, and exclusion from Building H for those without special authorization have all been reported by journalists not affiliated with large press organizations. Last year, a request for accreditation from The G|O was temporarily blocked on the basis that the UN does not grant press credentials to “associations” but only to media. It was granted after we pointed out that the legal status of Switzerland’s largest media company, the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, is that of an association. The G|O has since experienced no problems in accessing or reporting on the UN, although its offices are outside the UN campus.
The new regulations, which will come into force on December 1 if accepted by the UN and the ACANU, will also prohibit non-resident correspondents from accessing the Palais by car, or from inviting guests. Conducting interviews, filming, or taking pictures is already forbidden in Building H—plagued by problems from its inception and seen by many members of staff as being poorly designed—unless specifically authorized by UNIS.
“Revising the access guidelines stems from the need to take into account the access situation which has been/will be modified because of the renovation works in the framework of the Strategic Heritage Plan,” justifies Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS). “The document is a draft working document. It is not yet clear what kind of changes or restrictions there will be if any. Nothing has been decided yet—we are discussing it with ACANU and security at the moment.”
ACANU President Tamer Aboalenin, who does not wish to comment on the revision before the end of the consultation phase, adds: “ACANU sent the draft guidelines to the members, asking them for their feedback. We are developing a common position for our negotiations with UNIS.”
“Restrictive measures have been silently put in place”
For some, the fear is that ACANU will be too accommodating to the UN’s position. “They are kicking us out of the Palais, literally,” complains Dina Abi-Saab, manager for GenevaTV Production and UNOG correspondent since 2014. “I’m a freelancer, and during the pandemic and the renovation of the Palais, we decided to move, because we could no longer keep our office there. We have a studio space and need to be able to invite guests to comment on UN-related events, but media guests were not allowed. If the draft is validated in its current form, journalists like me will not be allowed to access the Palais by car. This is a big problem because I carry cameras, tripods, and computers essential to my work.”
The long-time local correspondent is shocked by the mere idea that a kind of journalism discrimination might be exercised in Geneva: “By implementing a two-tiered media system, the UN is being unfair to freelancers and smaller media.” Before the start of the SHP construction, fairness was not an issue, according to Dina Abi-Saab: “Personally, my experiences were good up until then. I could access news and rooms freely. We need to keep it like this.”
Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga, a storied correspondent who reports for France 24, is less charitable in her assessment of the UN’s level of transparency: “I’m very upset,” she rages. “We have been witnessing an increasing decline in the access to information and documents and the total disrespect of the content of the UN General Assembly. UN Resolution 67/124, which summarizes the UN’s commitment to the freedom of the press, has never been respected in Geneva.”
She adds: “Restrictive measures have been silently put in place for at least a year. Access to the Palais is only permitted on weekdays during opening hours and only through Pregny Gate, now closed due to the renovations. In my opinion, the situation is even more serious because, besides the restriction of movement that is being put in place with the renovations, there is also a reduction of access to information due to the virtual meetings.”
A former ACANU committee member, Fiankan-Bokonga has actively pushed over the years for a more press-friendly environment within the Palais: “Agencies from the Global North used to get privileged treatment in comparison to those from the Global South, and to media correspondents. Generally speaking, reporting is made difficult for all journalists. Fifteen years ago, there was already an attempt to remove all of us from the Palais and relocate us to La Pastorale, a 5-minute walk away. We managed to avoid that, but none of our demands to facilitate professional coverage of the UN over the years have been met.”
The pressure suffered by the media before and during the pandemic is the final blow, according to Fiankan-Bokonga, and one that surpasses the spectrum of the revised regulations. “Many of us don’t go to the Palais anymore because we don’t have the opportunity to ask questions. The experts are all at home.”
Peter Kenny, ACANU member and President of the Foreign Press Association in Switzerland and Liechtenstein (APES) joins the chorus of dismayed correspondents: “The new UN guidelines under discussion look akin to journalism apartheid at the UN, with the categorization of journalists and the UN seeming to drop support for those from developing countries without rented offices,” he writes in a letter to the ACANU committee. “[The guidelines] directly affect journalists from developing nations, who have been able to get press room desks and access once they are accredited. What does this mean for the Sustainable Development Goals, a cornerstone of the current work of the United Nations?”
“An old boys’ and girls’ club”
Elaine Fletcher, a veteran journalist and foreign correspondent currently at the head of the daily news service Health Policy Watch is less concerned about physical restrictions during certain hours—which she finds reasonable—and more so with the barriers the UN Office in Geneva has imposed on the accreditation of some local journalists and agencies.
Even though she is a Geneva-based journalist with 30 years of experience, and holds a Swiss press card, she was twice denied accreditation as editor of Health Policy Watch because the UNOG press office (UNIS) maintained that the news agency was “specialty press” and therefore did not meet its criteria of “covering international affairs.”
“If, after three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, and facing an existential climate crisis, UNIS cannot appreciate that reporting on international news through the health lens is just like reporting for the financial or humanitarian media, then I don’t know what world UNIS is living in,” said Fletcher, who just returned from COP27, which she covered first-hand. “In fact, we are the second largest non-profit media service in Geneva, with over one million readers a year from countries around the world—is this not enough?” she asks.
“UNIS kind of functions as an old boys and girls club,” Fletcher observes, “which favors only the biggest multinational chains, such as Bloomberg or The New York Times or Geneva insiders. Along with that, they do give out press cards to a handful of old-timers that have been around the Palais for a long time, even if they have smaller operations than ours. […] As a woman who has worked with major media in the USA, the Middle East and Europe for 30 years before taking on Health Policy Watch as a startup media network, I’m very conscious of how hard it is for small- and medium-sized media to break through, but we are important to a healthy media environment and deserve a level playing field.”
Fletcher adds that “in times when we maintained a permanent reporter in New York City, we faced no such problems with accreditation from UN headquarters, so the policy here in Geneva is clearly different—and peculiar.”
She also finds that UNOG has failed to take advantage of the shift to virtual media platforms that could open up Geneva’s UN operations to a much wider media world. “WHO has done a magnificent job of opening its weekly press briefings to media from around the world—and this has projected WHO’s profile and influence far more powerfully in the media world than ever before. It’s too bad UNIS isn’t taking advantage of similar opportunities.”
As a result, the UN “may be missing an opportunity to open up the Geneva, United Nations world to a much wider range of reporters from around the world. […] But even if UNIS wants to keep accreditation limited to Geneva-based media, we are exactly that, as well as bringing more diversity into the Geneva media world. So what’s the problem?”
It’s a question shared by many.
“THEY TRIED TO BREAK ALAA, BUT THEY FAILED”
By Sarah Zeines
Mona Seif is happy to be spending a few days in Geneva. “The city has a peaceful vibe,” she tells me. The sister of Egypt’s most famous political prisoner, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, Mona is exhausted by the last few weeks, which she spent in London using the COP27 as a global platform to push the Al-Sissi government to release her brother—in vain.
I briefly caught up with her in an almost empty university lecture hall, where a few moments prior she had been heartily applauded by the audience after sitting on a panel about human rights.
Mona’s commitment and energy are boundless. Geneva might be quieter than London, where she currently lives, or Cairo, which she visits regularly to be with her family. But over the past few days, she has been busy meeting human rights activists and defenders in a bid to put pressure on the Egyptian government to release her brother and other political prisoners.
The world knows her brother mostly through his writing. A collection of his essays, notes, and speeches written in jail was published last year. “Unlike me, you have not yet been defeated,” El-Fattah writes in the text that gives its title to the volume, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated. It is clear that these words also apply to Mona, to her family, and to what has now become a global movement to see him and others liberated.
The Geneva Observer: It’s been almost ten years since you were last in Geneva when you received the Martin Ennals Award for outstanding actions in the defense of human rights. Since then, the human rights community, several governments and the media have asked for your brother’s liberation. Why won’t President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi free him?
Mona Seif: That’s a very important question. The fact that he doesn’t, gives you an insight into the mentality of those in power in Egypt. The lengths this regime is willing to go to, to silence someone who poses no threat to them, is astounding. Officials are willing to endure an extremely high level of pressure, public attention, and outrage from the whole world, in their crusade to crush dissent. They just can’t fathom the idea that they have not broken Alaa and others like him. Alaa’s voice remains as strong and free as ever.
Your brother put an end to his months-long hunger strike last week after a near-death experience. How is he now?
Alive, thankfully. And hopeful after the family was able to visit him for his 40th birthday. I think that the past few weeks were far darker than he anticipated. The long hunger strike ate away at his body and energy. The six-day water strike, in particular, was the tipping point. He collapsed. Now that he’s no longer in the maximum-security prison where he was tortured, he has somehow managed to chase away his darkest and suicidal thoughts. The last time he blacked out, his first instinct was to call out for the family. Though he’s not out of the woods, the fact that he still sees us as his lifeline is reassuring.
After suffering years of torture and psychological abuse, how is Alaa’s mental state?
His ideas are still intact. He’s still writing down everything he goes through in prison. When he was in maximum security, he was under the authority of a particularly vicious state security officer. At the time, I felt like they were trying to see how much torture they could impose on him before he would tell us about it. His tormentors wanted to see if he was willing to give up a part of his identity. They were trying to break him, but they failed. Using his voice is part of how Alaa survives prison. If anything happens to him, the whole world is going to hold the Egyptian government accountable.
You and your family have been supporting Alaa by demonstrating and communicating extensively. It’s been a long struggle…
It’s been crazy. Starting in 2013, I became a mix between a human rights defender and a family member of a prisoner of conscience. When these two roles come together, it’s all-consuming. It takes over your life, your emotions, and even your voice. You have to constantly be speaking for yourself, but also for your family, and all political prisoners.
How will you be spending your time in Geneva?
I’m here for a four-day seminar with the Martin Ennals Foundation, before returning to London where I am currently based. I will mostly be participating in a series of workshops with human rights defenders. I’ll also be meeting some representatives of the OHCHR at a dinner event and I’ve already been acquainted with a couple of the organizations that work against torture and on political dissension issues. Because of the intensity of these past couple of weeks, I see this stay as an opportunity to recover a bit. Geneva has a very peaceful vibe.
Could Geneva, as the human rights capital of the world, be doing more to help free Alaa?
The human rights community of Geneva is doing a tremendous amount of work. The real problem comes from the fact that governments keep taking a diplomatic approach with a regime that is lawless, vile, violent, and brutal. There should be sanctions, but the world has a way of getting used to atrocities. Until COP27 put the spotlight on Egypt, very few people were paying attention to our situation, which has been ongoing since 2013. Governments need to step up their efforts once and for all.
What will you do next?
I will continue to reach out to different human rights organizations and engage with all the key actors in the EU and at the UN. And I will keep nagging UK officials because they have been doing less than they need to do for Alaa.
Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Sarah Zeines
Edited by: Dan Wheeler