The UN on Friday reneged on its promise to allow Andrew Hsia (
Anthony Jenkins, president of the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA), told members of the media gathered outside the UN building that while arranging for Hsia to speak to his group on Taiwan's bid to join the World Health Assembly (WHA) and the SARS epidemic, he had checked with the UN secretary-general's office and was told that although Secretary-General Kofi Annan anticipated the protest from Beijing, "this is something the United Nations could live with."
"Unfortunately, late last night, I received a phone call that the secretary-general had changed his mind and would bar us from having this briefing inside the United Nations," he said.
Jenkins said his association has a long history of inviting people to speak who are not particularly in favor with their respective governments. He cited the examples of Sinn Fein representative Gerry Adams, East Timor's Jose Horta and representatives of Chechen independence groups.
The British, Indonesian and Russian governments did not complain on those occasions, and neither did the UN nor any of its members, he said.
"The government of the People's Republic of China is the only government that has chosen to try to interfere with our rights to speak to whomever we please," Jenkins said.
"We feel it is a sad day when the United Nations kowtows to this sort of pressure. The United Nations is an organization that is devoted to the concept of freedom of the press. The United Nations invented World Press Freedom Day which is celebrated every year and was celebrated here just a month ago," he said.
For that reason, he said the UNCA will "protest vigorously," and added that "we also offer our apologies to Mr. Hsia."
Later, in a brief interview, Jenkins said it is the right of journalists to speak to anybody.
"It's our duty. We believe the press has a vital role to play in keeping governments honest, in rendering the affairs of the state as transparent as possible. That's what makes democracies strong," he said.
"If we are prevented from doing that job, then clearly you have a situation where people are not getting all the information they should be getting, and that has the potential to undermine democracy," he continued.
Nancy Leahy, who works for the Japanese daily Sankei Shumbun, said it is "frustrating and pathetic that political issues should have blocked freedom of the press."
She said that the UNCA is supposed to be an independent organization and that the UN secretary-general should be distanced from political issues.
She also noted the "great irony" in the UN's establishing World Press Freedom Day and then proceeding to trample precisely on that freedom.
Gloria Starr Kins, a journalist who witnessed the UN security staff blocking Jenkins and Hsia from entering the UN building, also expressed outrage.
Kins said she is a friend of Vice President Annette Lu (
UNCA sources said the group's executive committee voted 11 to 1 in favor of inviting Hsia to speak to members.
The only dissenting vote, from a Chinese member of the UNCA, finally vetoed the whole committee's decision.