Once again this year the UN barred Taiwanese journalists from accessing deliberations by the World Health Assembly (WHA) — the WHO’s supreme decision-making body — in Geneva, arguing that only media representatives from member states are allowed to attend. The world body has remained intransigent on the matter, despite repeated calls by allies of Taiwan, including a letter last week by the US-based Society of Professional Journalists to UN chief Ban Ki-moon criticizing the organization for continuing to sideline media representatives from a state that is one in every respect, if perhaps not nominally.
As always, letters to Ban had little effect. Sadly, as Beijing actively opposes giving Taiwan more room to maneuver on the international stage, Taiwanese media are unlikely to be reporting from inside a UN building any time soon, even when the nature of the deliberations may have a direct impact on Taiwanese and expatriates living in the country. Taipei could have sought to circumvent the limitations by, for example, using the media branches of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but the UN’s Media Liaison and Accreditation Unit clearly states that “media accreditation is not accorded to the information outlets of non-governmental organizations.”
When it comes to rationalizing Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO, the UN has relied on its backroom memorandum of understanding with Beijing in arguing that the People’s Republic of China is responsible for, willing to and capable of meeting the health needs of Taiwan — which on all three counts it certainly isn’t.
However, the same argument can hardly be applied to the media, as China continues to arrest domestic reporters, harass foreign journalists, control the nature and flow of information within China and filter foreign content that comes into the country. In other words, Taiwan cannot be expected to rely on Chinese media outlets to obtain information of relevance to Taiwanese.
The UN media unit’s Web site is also informative for another reason. In the “accreditation” requirements section, it states that: “The Department of Public Information reserves the right to deny or withdraw accreditation of journalists from media organizations whose activities run counter to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, or who abuse the privileges so extended or put the accreditation to improper use or act in a way not consistent with the principles of the Organization or established journalism ethics and standards.” (italics added).
If, as the media unit claims, the UN continues to deny accreditation to Taiwanese journalists solely on the premise that only media organizations from member states can receive it, it should stick to the letter of the law by “denying” or “withdrawing” accreditation to Chinese journalists, as state-controlled Chinese media and the warped information they force-feed Chinese “run counter to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations” — something every organization that deals with human rights and journalistic freedom would gladly confirm.
On the one hand, Taiwan has a free media environment in which journalists are able to speak and report freely and criticize the authorities and where “pluralism is an established reality,” as Reporters Without Borders observed in its annual report last year. On the other hand, we have China, where the real truth seekers are jailed or beaten up for speaking out, publications shut down for digging beneath the surface and foreign reporters face intimidation and numerous barriers.
Based on this, Taiwan has a much better case for having its reporters present at UN meetings than does China, and yet, its journalists remain excluded, unable to gather information and raise pertinent questions, while their Chinese counterparts — even the well-meaning ones — are forced to comply with a system that contravenes the UN Charter.
Should it choose to continue to yield to Chinese pressure on Taiwanese statehood, the UN could nevertheless find a way to accommodate Taiwan. One option would be allowing Taiwanese NGOs to participate, for example, through the UN Department of Public Information — which began cooperating with NGOs in 1947 and at present works with more than 1,500 such organizations — rather than through the formal system, which is contingent on UN membership.
As the framework laid down in 1996 by the UN’s Economic and Social Council stipulates, NGOs wishing to cooperate with the UN must “support and respect the principles of the Charter of the UN and have a clear mission statement that is consistent with those principles … and be recognized nationally or internationally” — benchmarks that Taiwanese NGOs can meet with ease. With some flexibility within the UN, this could work, both at the WHA and in other UN organizations.
Far from a perfect alternative, this approach could nevertheless help Taiwan obtain the information it needs to protect the health of its people while obviating Beijing’s exploitation of “membership as a prerequisite” to frustrate Taiwan’s efforts.
Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan once said that “if the UN’s global agenda is to be properly addressed, a partnership with civil society at large is not an option, it is a necessity.” If statehood, or lack thereof, serves as an impediment to Taiwanese obtaining the information they need, then its civil society should at least be allowed to represent them.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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