As the growing threats of war, weapons of mass destruction and climate change increase the need for a form of global government that can protect vulnerable populations, what is the role of journalists when reporting on the foremost international institution, the United Nations? In spite of brilliant work from the new Secretary General Guterres, the UN still faces numerous challenges and limitations, particularly the need to placate the United States under the leadership of Trump. Journalists have a role to play in this context, by working with the organization to continuously increase its transparency, and meet the request of our times for truth telling.
Post-9/11 and post-Arab Spring, we are living in more precarious times. More than ever, it is obvious we need a form of global government to protect vulnerable populations against the threat of war, weapons of mass destruction and the ravages of climate change. In such times, what role could and should journalists play when reporting on the people and institutions that are currently doing that much needed work – and foremost among them, the United Nations?
It has never been a better time to be a reporter. The fallacies of the Trump administration have in a sense been an incentive for reporters to dig deeper, and spend more time on investigations. The journalist plays a pivotal role in bringing the truth to light, by revealing hidden facts, interpreting them in context, shaping narratives, and informing the public to guide collective action. On one level, this has caused the press to emerge as stronger than ever in a time when democracies and human rights are under threat – but it has equally incentivized journalists to report about the UN and other international organizations.
The UN has its own challenges these day. In the midst of turbulent times, the new Secretary General, Antonio Guterres has proposed a new strategy to reform the UN, largely based on making it leaner and making important cuts in budgets. Guterres is possibly the most intellectual and humanitarian Secretary General in the past two decades. But he faces the extreme hostility of the United States, an important permanent member of the Security Council, under the administration of President Trump. Guterres has had to placate Washington, a job that one UN observer says takes up an enormous amount of his time, and to monitor the ‘learning curve’ of Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the UN, who did not come from a foreign policy background. On both fronts, Guterres has done an impressive job.
Our times call for truth telling. This changing atmosphere opens a great opportunity for journalists to work more closely with the UN, and play a role in supporting the development of positive, transparent and ethical global governance institutions.
In spite of being the world’s main international institution, tasked with a crucial mission, and operating on what is in absolute terms a large budget and a lot of capacity, the UN is nonetheless limited in what it can do. In particular, the need to placate member states limits the capacity for the Secretary General to lead large internal policy changes that the organization needs. Here, journalists may have a role to play. For instance, the Syrian conflict has dragged on with massive casualty to civilians as well as atrocities and war crimes from both sides (though one side more than the other). The role of journalists in unearthing data on chemical attacks, human rights violations and casualty rates has been urgent and impressive.
I began reporting on the United Nations – largely their peacekeeping missions – in the early 1990s. Writing about the international organization from the outside was a frustrating, sometimes thankless task. In those days, technology which we take for granted these days – instant messaging, Skype, WhatsApp, even Internet – did not exist. Our means of communication was usually an expensive satellite phone.
Therefore, those of us working in the deep field – in Bosnia, in Rwanda, in Somalia – usually existed in a bubble where the real story and the real news did not exist unless we excavated it ourselves. So, the UN communications team (often consisting of a single spokesperson) who would descend on an emergency or crisis zone was imperative to our field work and our research.
The spokesmen (I can’t ever recall a spokeswoman in those days) varied from the excellent (Peter Kessler, now a Senior UN official at UNHCR comes to mind) to the truly dreadful bureaucrats, sometimes sent on a mission without a real grasp of what was happening on the ground, or just a clear loathing of reporters and the industry. There were occasions when they concealed the truth, or deliberately led us off track, which to a reporter is akin to lying. This was not so much an internal culture of secrecy than an attempt to keep reporters in the dark, without the true and full facts. In this, the UN was not behaving exceptionally.
Times have changed in terms of bringing the news to the public. The UN’s Department of Public Information under the wing of Secretary General Antonio Guterres has grown and advanced and is now led by a former New York Times Foreign Editor, Alison Smale, who is an excellent journalist and reporter, and leading a team of hundreds. In terms of logistics, communications have made the UN more accessible. This is purely a matter of technology – the UN web pages and archives, as well as photo libraries, are available to anyone. Agencies like UNHCR or UNDP have their reports and their data on line, making it impossible for a reporter to say they could not access information. In the past, we had to rely on getting someone on the phone to check facts or get statistics. That could sometimes take days, or weeks.
But the organisation is still not completely transparent to reporters. Several times when I have done ‘deep dives’ into investigating various UN agencies or divisions – the Syrian peace talks, or the role of the new Secretary General, Antonio Guterres – I still encountered a cloak of silence. I also found, however, that there were plenty of whistleblowers, ready to step forward and point out the gaps, the discrepancies and the dead ends in the UN system. Some of them came forward because they were aware of wrongdoings, and their moral imperative made them want to speak the truth.
Our times call for truth telling. This changing atmosphere opens a great opportunity for journalists to work more closely with the UN, and play a role in supporting the development of positive, transparent and ethical global governance institutions. There is also more crossover with reporters – such as myself – who work as consultants for the UN on various projects in which we have expertise, and can thus increase transparency.
I’ve never given up on reporting and the urgency of it, particularly in a time when the public needs to know the global risks facing us all. It has been a hard three decades working world-wide, bringing out the news. But it is a task that has left me greatly fulfilled, and a task which I hope has in some way shaped policy, particularly towards civilians in times of war or conflict.
Janine di Giovanni is an award-winning author, foreign correspondent and foreign policy analyst. She is currently the Edward Murrow Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, researching minorities in the Middle East. Janine di Giovanni has contributed to publications including The Times, Vanity Fair, Granta, The New York Times, and The Guardian, worked as Middle East editor at Newsweek, and is the author of The morning they came for us. She is also a frequent moderator of high-level panels, an analyst on foreign policy at conferences and has worked for the World Economic Forum, the World Bank, the UN, Harvard’s Kennedy School, Princeton, the LSE, and many other institutions. In 2016, she was awarded the Courage in Journalism Award for her distinguished work in war zones focusing on tracking war criminals over the past 25 years, and most recently in Syria. She tweets at @janinedigi.