The World Health Assembly (WHA) which was held last week is one of the most important international conferences on health issues. The UN, however, disregarded the condemnation by the Society of Professional Journalists, the Association of European Journalists and the European Parliament and insisted on barring Taiwanese journalists from entering the assembly conference hall. This violated the rights of Taiwanese journalists, but it also dealt a severe blow to the credibility of the UN, which was founded on the principle of safeguarding human rights. I would like to offer the following two viewpoints from a purely legal perspective.
First, the criteria for UN accreditation of media stipulates that only individuals from media outlets registered in a country recognized by the UN may enter UN buildings. Owners of public buildings of course have the right to restrict entry by specific groups of people. Such concerns, however, are aimed at blocking "inappropriate people," such as terrorists or armed individuals who could jeopardize the security of the building and the people inside. Taiwanese journalists, however, should not be the target of such concerns, so why were they refused entry?
The regulation on media access here takes the approach of a positive statement, but it does not automatically exclude reporters from non-member states. On top of that, and the crux of controversy, the UN applies this regulation to "highly public-interest oriented" UN buildings and to important legal issues, namely press freedom.
A more reasonable interpretation of the regulation would be that the UN only should restrict access rights to reporters only under exceptional conditions, regardless of whether or not they come from a UN member state. That Taiwanese reporters have been barred from covering the WHA meeting for three years seems to imply that, previously, the UN might have had a different interpretation of press freedom.
Second, the UN plays an important role in safeguarding human rights. The value of press freedom is recognized by the UN General Assembly in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
As a result, the UN has often been accused by international journalistic organizations of violating press freedom when refusing accreditation to the media in certain nations. In my opinion, the UN would likely respond to such criticism by saying that the UN has not violated or limited press freedom since Taiwanese people can read WHA-related news coverage in reports published by media in UN member states; therefore, it does not violate the public's right to know. Even such a statement, however, is a possible violation of the core values of press freedom.
The UN's restrictions have deprived Taiwanese journalists of a platform for free speech by only allowing the perspectives of the West and the People's Republic of China. Furthermore, the UN's limits on press freedom may have a chilling effect. We must be on our guard, since it could mean the UN will arbitrarily use this mechanism against other non-member states and maybe even member states.