It should be a fairly routine matter for a press freedom organization to get the credentials to attend meetings at the United Nations, an international body whose charter calls for the respect of human rights and basic freedoms.
Instead, the Committee to Protect Journalists found itself in what it calls a "Kafka-esque" process, deferred for years — and on Thursday, blocked by 10 countries, including Russia and China, which CPJ calls the biggest jailer of journalists in the world.
"A small group of countries with poor press freedom records are using bureaucratic delaying tactics to sabotage and undermine any efforts that call their own abusive policies into high relief," CPJ's executive director, Joel Simon, said after the vote.
Others voting "no" on CPJ's application were Azerbaijan, Burundi, Cuba, Nicaragua, Pakistan, South Africa, Sudan and Venezuela. Iran, Turkey and India abstained.
The United States laments this as part of a recent pattern in which applications are deferred or rejected outright by the U.N.'s 19-member Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations, which recommends the organizations that should be able to gain access to U.N. meetings.
"CPJ had been deferred six times prior to today," U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said following Thursday's vote, which she called "outrageous."
"Countries defer by asking questions. Even when those questions are answered, more questions are asked again — it's just a device, a way of ensuring that those accreditations are not forthcoming," she said. "It is increasingly clear that the NGO committee acts more and more like an 'anti-NGO committee.' "
The CPJ applied for "consultative status" — meaning the group's representatives could have access to U.N. groups, certain meetings and processes — in 2007 and again in 2012, according to Courtney Radsch, CPJ's advocacy director. She says it is difficult to get accreditation from a committee that includes "some of the most repressive countries in the world."
Every six months, applicants are reviewed, Radsch says. In CPJ's case, it's been given a series of questions to answer, including how the group is funded. Radsch — who happened to be celebrating the release of a prominent Azerbaijani reporter just as Azerbaijan's diplomat in New York was voting to keep CPJ away from the U.N. — says CPJ does not take funding from governments.
Yet no matter how many times her group has made its case, members of the U.N. committee "don't seem to believe it," she says, and "want to paint us as a U.S. lackey."
The Committee to Project Journalists can be invited to take part in U.N. debates already, but it is easier to gain access to U.N. buildings, diplomats and officials when activists have passes and credentials. Other press freedom groups have been given U.N. credentials over the years, including Reporters Without Borders and the U.K.'s Article 19.
Human Rights Watch has had U.N. accreditation since 1993 but notes it is getting harder for others to join — and it, too, has to report back periodically on its work to the U.N.
Human Rights Watch is being put through "kind of an obstacle course of questions" about its work, says Akshaya Kumar, the group's deputy U.N. director.
Power, the U.S. ambassador, says she will bring CPJ's case to a vote of the full U.N. Economic and Social Council, which could override the NGO committee vote. Power said she looks forward to a "lively debate" before then.
"Countries have to decide which side are they on," she said, pointing out that Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the founding documents of the U.N., calls for the freedom of the press.
"One can learn a few things" by looking at the list of countries that voted against the CPJ, she said.
But today, one of those countries — South Africa — indicated it was having second thoughts about its "no" vote. In a statement, the government said:
"As a matter of principle, South Africa has no objection to CPJ being granted an observer status by ECOSOC given the outstanding and sterling work undertaken by the CPJ in the area of promotion and protection of journalists across the globe. We regret the misunderstanding and the wrong message that the lack of explanation of our vote in the NGO Committee could have portrayed. South Africa will during the main session of ECOSOC support the application by CPJ with a yes vote and appeal to all ECOSOC Members to do the same."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
You might think it would be fairly easy for an internationally-recognized press freedom group to have access to the United Nations. But when China and Russia are among the gatekeepers, that mission can get complicated. This past week, those two countries and eight others on a key U.N. panel voted against giving formal accreditation to the Committee to Protect Journalists. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The Committee to Protect Journalists describes it as a bureaucratic nightmare straight out of a Kafka novel. The group's advocacy director, Courtney Radsch, says CPJ applied in 2012 for credentials to the U.N. and every six months had to answer the same old questions - mostly about the group's finances, none of which, she says, comes from governments.
COURTNEY RADSCH: No matter how many times we wrote this, put this in our documentation or said this - because our executive director went there to answer questions - they just don't seem to believe it. And they seem to, you know, want to paint us as a U.S. lackey or paint our research as completely false and baseless.
KELEMEN: Radsch says the Committee to Protect Journalists takes a hard look at all countries, including the U.S., and its reports are well researched.
RADSCH: We have documented all these journalists in prison. And then for the countries that are the worst for journalists to just get up there and denigrate our work was - it was disappointing and upsetting.
KELEMEN: China, which she describes as the biggest jailer of journalists in the world, was among the 10 countries voting no, as were Russia, Venezuela, Pakistan, Cuba and Sudan. So too did Azerbaijan, just as Radsch and her colleagues were celebrating the release of a prominent Azeri journalist, Khadija Ismayilova.
RADSCH: I was standing in front of the White House at a rally for Khadija, welcoming her release and celebrating her 40th birthday party. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is there trying to delegitimize us and voting no against our application.
KELEMEN: The Committee to Protect Journalists can still get invited to meetings at the U.N., but having accreditation is important both symbolically and in practice. Human Rights Watch got its credentials back in 1993, according to that group's deputy U.N. director, Akshaya Kumar.
AKSHAYA KUMAR: It really opens doors, and it makes it much easier for us to interact with the diplomats and the officials and the experts who work at the U.N.
KELEMEN: Kumar says Human Rights Watch still has to report periodically to the NGO committee, which puts her group through what she calls an obstacle course of questions. "Those in the application process now are often stuck in limbo," she says, adding, "the problem is the makeup of the U.N.'s NGO committee."
KUMAR: It's just disproportionately filled with states who don't have a good track record of human rights at home, and, additionally, has made it their mission to make it harder for groups to get access to the U.N. in New York.
KELEMEN: That's not lost on the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
SAMANTHA POWER: It is increasingly clear that the NGO committee acts more and more like anti-NGO committee.
KELEMEN: She plans to go above that committee to ask the U.N. Economic and Social Council to vote this summer to give credentials to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Power is expecting a lively debate on that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
POWER: The vote is important because countries have to decide which side are they on. Are the on the side of free expression and organizations that try to advance that cause, or are they hostile to Article 19?
KELEMEN: That's the section of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a founding document of the U.N., which calls for the freedom of the press. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.