UN panel rejects press freedom watchdog accreditation request

The United States quickly denounced the decision and vowed to try to overturn it.

FILE: The United Nations (UN) headquarters stands above the neighbourhood on the east side of Manhattan in September 2015 in New York City. Picture: AFP.

UNITED NATIONS - The Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom watchdog group, was denied consultative status at the United Nations on Thursday, with South Africa, Russia and China among the countries that opposed it.

The United States quickly denounced the decision and vowed to try to overturn it.

New York-based CPJ reports on violations of press freedom in countries and conflict zones around the world, reporting and mobilising action on behalf of journalists who have been targeted. A UN panel rejected its application for status that would have given it access to UN headquarters and allowed it to participate in UN events.

The 19-member UN Committee on Non-Governmental Organisations has for years delayed action on the group's application for accreditation. CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon described the NGO committee process as "Kafkaesque."

"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," he said in a statement.

The NGO committee rejected CPJ's application with 10 votes against, six in favour and three abstentions.

Normally the committee decides by consensus. But a senior US diplomat requested a vote after South Africa and other committee members kept posing questions that the United States and others denounced as a delaying tactic.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said Washington would seek to overturn the NGO committee's "outrageous" decision by calling for a vote in the 54-nation UN Economic and Social Council.

"We are extremely disappointed by today's vote," she told reporters. "It is increasingly extremely clear that the NGO committee acts more and more like an anti-NGO committee."

Western diplomats said the UN NGO committee has become increasingly unfriendly to organizations supporting Western notions of human rights, noting that gay rights NGOs and other groups have had trouble securing accreditation.

The NGO committee's current members are Azerbaijan, Burundi, China, Cuba, Greece, Guinea, India, Iran, Israel, Mauritania, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Sudan, Turkey, United States, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Western diplomats said they were especially disappointed by South Africa, whose delegation criticised CPJ for, among other things, not supporting punishment for speech that incites hatred. The CPJ has noted that there is no internationally agreed definition of the term "hate speech."

A Russian delegate said he had "serious doubts about whether this organisation really is a non-governmental organisation."

China, Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Sudan were also among those that voted against CPJ's accreditation.

Azerbaijan, Iran, China, and Cuba are on the CPJ's list of the 10 most-censored countries. It says on its website that the legacy of Nelson Mandela's drive for press freedom in South Africa has faded.

On Russia it says: "Russia has a poor record of impunity in the cases of murdered journalists, which increases intimidation and acts of violence against the press."