Tag Archives: journalism

Endgame:  Enhancing Trust in the UN’s Complex Strands of Truth, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 May


At the least, we should leave flowers; at the least we should leave songs. Xiuhtezcatl Martinez

The Dreaming is now. The Dreaming is always; forever.  Kate Constable

The purpose of any ceremony is to build stronger relationship or bridge the distance between our cosmos and us.  Shawn Wilson

After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.  Philip Pullman

We live in a fragmented civilization with fragmented indoctrinations.  Talismanist Giebra

This was another breathtaking week at the UN.  From nuclear weapons and Syrian reconciliation to depleted fish stocks and the “re-deployment” of the UN development system, seemingly every available conference room was tied up with one policy urgency or another.

There were three other events this week that might seem disparate on the surface, but which are related to questions about means and ends regarding how the UN both communicates its own messages and also allows those who communicate differently to “have their say” in an appropriate and respectful manner.

These events were the plenary of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Committee on Information and the annual event promoting safety and protection for what has become (at least beyond the celebrity journalists who now fill our airwaves) a largely besieged journalistic community.

The Indigenous Forum took up a number of issues that have dominated prior events and that still resist resolution, including inclusion of indigenous languages at national level, modalities for full participation in the work of UN entities, land and water rights (including protection for those who defend those rights), health care (including attention to youth suicide rates) and respect for what many referred to as “indigenous knowledge.” Such knowledge highlights a way of relating to our decreasingly-biodiverse natural order that is more intimate and more interactive than our data-driven and abstracted policymaking. Our UN policy spaces have conferred on us the option of simultaneously “branding” our urgency regarding theis current “extinction moment” while turning at least a partial blind eye to the “business as usual” that props up our own lifestyles but endangers all that deign to come after us.

In the Committee on Information, the issue of languages was again front-and-center.   There has been a movement afoot for some time to within the UN to ensure both the full use of all six “official languages” and to increase sensitivity to those forced to learn one of these languages (primarily English) in order to be able to communicate in a wide range of diplomatic functions and participate fully in UN deliberations.

We fully support this movement.  An English-obsessive environment such as exists at UN Headquarters places undue pressure on UN interpreters but also opens undeserved pathways to participation for essentially monolingual persons such as myself who can barely order meals in another language let alone function without interpretive earphones in the complex policy environment of the UN.  And the commitment to function in all of the official languages of the UN is more than a matter of national or regional pride, more even than upholding the UN Charter.  It is about making space for different ways of knowing the world, the nuances of reality that are largely couched (and sometimes obscured) in the English that dominates this policy space; nuances which bear potential in all languages (certainly including indigenous ones) to cut through our measured bureaucracy-speak and give people stories and metaphors that are suggestive rather than definitive, that enable dialogue rather than merely instruct or even coerce.

This brings us to another core agenda of the Committee related to how the UN “sells itself” and its activities to governments and global constituencies.  While not all delegations are comfortable with what often seems like nothing more than a sophisticated UN branding exercise, few are willing to make the case for truth-telling, for communicating not only what the UN does (which is considerable to be sure), but also what it does not do, what it fails to do and, perhaps most importantly, what it is not well equipped to do.  Here we advocate again contextualizing our narrow “truth zones” to identify the promises made and not kept, but also to highlight the (too many) times we have willfully raised expectations beyond what the system is prepared to fulfill.

A cursory review of US (and now most other cultures) reveals that our current  obsession with branding ourselves, our products and our corporate and career interests has abandoned a more balanced and context-responsible outreach to a veritable feeding frenzy of (at best) half-truths designed to win followers and cultivate “rooting interests.”  What is true, as we have said before, is essentially what you can convince others to be true, obsessing on “facts” at one level but mostly only the “facts” that help make our cases.  And we cleverly avoid context, including the “context” that implicates us in the illusions that have given rise to our current crises.  Indeed, our many hours each week in UN conference rooms indicates that a failure to acknowledge the “contributions” we make to the very ills we are mandated to resolve constitutes a major impediment to the fulfillment of globally-essential tasks that no amount of positive branding can erase.

Collectively, we mostly now assume that we are being manipulated in the public sector to such a degree that it no longer piques our interest, at least on the surface.   We trust less and less of what we are told, but the implications of a so-called “information environment” that at its best now “informs” with willful selectivity remains largely unexamined.  Information, more and more, is a subset of our addiction to entertainment, often celebrating individual and corporate self-promotion, certainly enabling the epidemic need to have our biases and limitations confirmed rather than challenged.  To the extent that any of this is part of what the call for better UN “branding” implies, we need to study the implications for trust and truth more carefully.

And finally, we were present (as in years past) in the annual commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, a time to recall the many journalists worldwide who face harassment, prison, even death for sticking their noses (and their cameras) in the middle of illicit activity that people in power are all-too-willing to punish in order to keep private.  While the president of the General Assembly rightly lauded journalists for “holding up the mirror” to society, for telling the stories that no one else will tell, and for confounding the rumors that proliferate in this world, Lebanon’s Ambassador also lamented the “hyper-partisan” environment that we have created for ourselves, an environment that turns mirror-holding into a potential capital offense and provides cover for agendas that only barely (if at all) reference the “public interest.”

Perhaps the best address at this event came from the African Union’s Ambassador Mohammed, who advocated for “conflict-sensitive” journalism supported by international efforts to pursue the truth that can keep our policies on a steady and humane path.  The key here for me is the “pursue the truth” aspect, which I understand as the best available information set in the broadest possible human and policy contexts.  If we at the UN cannot achieve this level of truth-telling, if we cannot find the means to issue statements and tell stories that seek to enhance and inspire rather than recruit and isolate, we will in the end only strike more blows to our own credibility. As Warren Hoge noted at the same event, part of our essential (and courageous) task in this time of threat from authorities of all stripes remains to “debunk falsehoods.”  A good place to start, for we in the media and policy communities alike, would be with our own.

As many of you know, Avengers: Endgame (which I likely won’t see) has been breaking the internet for weeks complete with its staggering box office success in the US and in other countries.   For those who chalk this up to our endless search for the next big distraction, you might be missing half the point. It is also, I suspect, part of a deep and largely unfulfilled yearning for stories, stories that compel attention and invite people to dream, stories that connect people to larger realities than their ordinary lives ordinarily permit, stories that bridge the ever-widening gap between “our cosmos and us.”

I would prefer to have more of those stories coming from places like the UN.  But do we know how to tell them? And do we have the courage to ensure that the UN plays its part as an antidote to the “fragmented indoctrination” that defines our times?

Women’s Wear:  Sharing the Burdens of Those Who Defend and Inform, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Mar

Afghan II


To stand up for someone was to stitch your fate into the lining of theirs. Tom Rob Smith

Every human is fated to have one moment in their lives in which they can change their own destiny. Takayuki Yamaguchi

If I don’t help the women in Afghanistan, they won’t be around to help me. Cheryl Benard

It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women; that the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The end of this past work week was dominated by images that pointed human potential in vastly opposite directions.  In New Zealand, a mass killing in two mosques grabbed world headlines and caused many institutions – including the UN Security Council – to pause for a moment of silence, a moment that underscored both concern for victims and viceral unease at our collective inability to address — let alone eradicate — this “other terrorism.”  Indeed, the relative indifference evidenced by the government of the UN’s host nation stood only partially in contrast with the mostly muted levels of shock emanating from other states, shock perhaps due more to the startling location of this violence than to its severity.   We are collectively becoming numb to the incessant carnage, it appears, renouncing violence only when it hits too close to home, and often not even then.

On the same day, many thousands of teen-aged young people prepared to leave their classrooms and fill the world’s streets, taking adults like me to task for our negligence on climate threats.  Despite the warnings of insufficient responses, despite the scientific consensus on a threat more immediate and widespread than previously thought, we have mostly gone about our regular business as though our concerns were primarily grounded in rhetoric rather than in survival.  Moreover, we have inflicted this “business” on succeeding generations mostly stuck in classrooms and consumed with admission to next educational levels while the planet melts, millions are on the move, rights are being violated with impunity, and violent tensions are on the rise.

That said, it is especially good for all of us that young people take to the streets to protest some portion of the absurdity of “preparing for life” on a planet that might not be able to sustain life as we know it for that much longer.  Among their contributons, their presence on our avenues and boulevards is a reminder to the rest of us that the greatest gift to climate deniers is the lifestyle indifference of we who claim to accept the “reality” of climate threats, our unwillingness to reduce our ecological footprint, to care for the displaced and discriminated, to hold erstwhile “leadership” accountable for what is coming and not only what is.

The UN of course takes regular notice of threats from terrorism and violence even if it must often wait for states, especially powerful ones, to take up their own portions of global responsibility.  For this week, however, threats to and opportunities for women dominated the UN during the 63rd convening of ECOSOC’s Commission for the Status of Women (CSW), ably chaired by Ireland.  Thousands of women from around the world made the trek to New York, filling virtually every available UN space in plenary sessions and copious side events to discuss the merits of “social protection” and link “women’s empowerment” to sustainable development goals previously promised to the world through the 2030 Development Agenda.

The CSW is both a major branding opportunity and a bit of a “mixed bag” for the UN, which failed once again to secure guarantees from the host state for access by all the women registered, while also largely failing to provide levels of hospitality that women who have traveled long distances to participate surely deserve.  What these CSW delegates found instead is endless lines for coffee and basic sustenance, standing room only side events, and rest room configurations that had not been adjusted in any way to accommodate the thousands of women now in the building.  The security officers tasked with screening and providing direction for these women have often been no less stressed than the visiting women themselves.

Moreover, there is a sense in which delegates seem to have been led to believe that the CSW is breaking new ground for the UN in terms of ending impunity for sexual violence in conflict, ensuring women’s participation in political and peace processes, and guaranteeing educational opportunity and social protection for women and girls.   These matters already constitute a significant portion of our regular discourse here at the UN.  This is as it should be, with the caveats that our gendered jargon (how do we know when someone is “empowered?”) might actually impede a deeper, connected understanding of the many layers of exclusion that infect our collective interests.  For all the barriers faced by women in diverse cultural contexts, theirs is but one ample portion of a number of often-interlocked exclusions associated with race, religion, ethnicity, poverty, disability and social class. These factors contribute to complex and multi-layered patterns of discrimination that impact women to be sure, but hardly women alone.

It is in the CSW side events where the complexities of human lives – women’s lives – are mostly likely to find their voice.  Two such side events stood out for us this past week.  The first, “Current Challenges and Opportunities for Women Human Rights Defenders,” featured women from Syria, Myanmar, Sudan, Nicaragua and elsewhere who literally put their lives on the line to defend rights and public interests in places where most of us – including many who reside in our UN safe spaces – would not be anxious to tread.  The powerful and largely humble testimony of these women did not downplay either the threats they face in the field (including gender-specific threats) or the limited reach of UN protections against reprisals for their activities (duly acknowledged by the UN officials present).  Women defenders are expected to “navigate layers of power” while insisting that their own “layered” and often-traumatic experiences inform what one defender referred to as women’s rights discourse that has become “too predictable,” a “tool for repressive states,” alienating for many women on the front lines of change.

Another side event this week, “Journalism and the empowerment of women,” featured women journalists whose difficult work is both facilitated and imperiled by their deep connection to and reliance on “social media.” Such platforms have become havens for “anonymous” and mean-spirited trolling of the journalists who tell the public things they would rather not know, trolling sometimes accompanied by gendered threats of overt violence that, in some instances, morph into physical attacks against individuals and families.  One of the free-lance panelists who is dedicated to covering right-wing movements cited “staggering” amounts of anti-Semitic, derogatory responses on social media in response to her body of reporting. Another journalist capably extended the discourse on exclusion and abuse, noting that when you examine issues of race, “you put a target on your back,” a target for which there is scant protection, especially from online assaults. Male journalists, it was noted, are also subject to abuse, but are generally regarded as “hated equals,” a courtesy rarely extended to women in the profession.

I was so grateful for the women on both these panels who were generally able to speak clearly about the extraordinary pressures they face without demonizing others or minimizing the generalized impacts of the recrimination and violence that characterize much of our current social climate.  But I also wondered: What keeps them going when their energy and hope have worn thin?  What allows them to do their work, day after day, knowing that they and their families risk being “hung out to dry” by those of us in much safer spaces who can simply redirect our energy to other matters?   Is it pride and determination? Have they simply “stitched their fate” with those serially oppressed?  Do they feel the hurt that can only be healed through intention?   We need to know more about their motivations and feed off their examples.

With an absence of essentialist jargon and with the recognition that too much global policy is like rain that forms in the clouds but never reaches the parched earth, women defenders and journalists are boldly sharing stories and contexts that some want to kill and too many others ignore.  If we want a world where families are safe to worship and children are confident in the health of a planet that will house their adult aspirations, we must all pledge to do whatever it takes to offer mechanisms of protection and solidarity with the eye-opening and often life-saving work of these people of courage.




Paper Chase: Ensuring the Dignity and Safety of Journalists, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Nov


There are very few people who are going to look into the mirror and say, ‘That person I see is a savage monster;’ instead, they make up some construction that justifies what they do. Noam Chomsky

We don’t go into journalism to be popular. It is our job to seek the truth and put constant pressure on our leaders until we get answers. Helen Thomas

People may expect too much of journalism. Not only do they expect it to be entertaining, they expect it to be true. Lewis H. Lapham

There were so many interesting things taking place at the UN this week that compelled our interest:

  • a strong effort in the General Assembly by Cuba to compel the US to finally and fully lift its economic, commercial and financial blockade of the island;
  • an all-too-rare briefing in the Security Council by the UN’s Refugee Chief Grandi during which he inquired with some frustration, “Are we unable to broker peace?” He reminded the Council that peace and security constitute the deepest longings of most refugees;
  • a spirited discussion in the General Assembly’s Third Committee featuring the president of the Human Rights Council, Guatemala’s Ambassador Maza Martelli, focused in part on the still-considerable divide separating UN human rights policy development in New York and Geneva;
  • a fine ending to France’s October Security Council presidency in the form of a full-member debate on our responsibilities to children in situations of armed conflict including this presidential statement;
  • a tense discussion in the General Assembly’s First Committee regarding the contents and implications of the recently-released, Joint Investigative Mechanism report on chemical weapons use in Syria.

But we as an office remain inescapably drawn to discussions and presentations on media, and we were particularly grateful for the side event on Thursday sponsored by Greece and UNESCO on the topic, “Ending Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.”

Part of this discussion was focused on implementing the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, with special attention given to the special health and safety risks of women journalists, especially those working in conflict-affected areas.   While women journalists make up a still-small percentage of total victims, their numbers in the profession are rising faster than their “welcome,” with many reporting threats based on their gender as well as their investigative work, and many accusing authorities from diverse parts of the world of continuing to “dismiss” what they (and many of the rest of us) believe are fully legitimate, personal security concerns.

What is always disconcertng to us during these discussions is how few attacks on journalists result in proper investigations let alone prosecutions.  UNESCO’s report World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development cites data supporting the discouraging conclusion that ”impunity has remained the predominant trend with few perpetrators of the killings brought to justice.”  As UNESCO’s La Rue put it during the UN side event, “every unpunished crime is an invitation to more.” The UN’s “Group of Friends” on the Safety of Journalists, including four current Security Council members among its 19 participating states, understands the urgency of breathing protection and honor into this increasingly dangerous and unduly tarnished profession.

But beyond the courage of the journalists who risk so much for the sake of their important investigations, especially in zones of conflict, there are many disturbing metrics regarding the health of the media sector as a whole and the implication of that declining health for promoting safety for journalists and ending impunity for violations against them.   As it turns out, where journalists are concerned, levels of honor and violence are more closely intertwined than we might otherwise wish to acknowledge.

It is no news to anyone reading this post that the media landscape continues to evolve in ways that are in part about shifting “markets” and in part about some other discouraging shifts regarding the people we’ve become and the societies we’ve created.  The days of “Extra, Extra, Read all About it” have long given way to a complex, subjective and often ideologically-constituted media landscape that contributes to current levels of social fragmentation more than ameliorates their disintegrative impacts.

We are passing through an an age that breeds media alternatives far faster than it encourages reflection on media roles and responsibilities; an age where cell phone cameras have turned so many into amateur “paparazzi” ready to exploit and humiliate every conceivable human foible and compromise what little remains of our personal privacy; where media “professionals” chase scandal for ratings and seem more interested in “taking people down” than in helping leaders  be effective in the jobs for which they have been entrusted; where more and more of those leaders, in turn, judge the “legitimacy” of journalists based on how much official “spin” they are eager to ingest.

It is also an age characterized by copious quantities of suspicion, even cynicism, about the potential of humans to co-exist in respectful tones.  Everyone, we are now led to believe, is simply “grinding an axe.”  All have an agenda, usually we suspect for personal gain and well beyond that which is immediately accessible.  In addition, everyone has “something to hide;” one or more juicy tidbits from past or present that could be valuable to others in their own desire to successfully “manipulate outcomes.”

We even now “use” select aspects of the media to keep us from having to face the challenges that we so badly need journalists to keep us informed about.   Indeed, it now seems highly plausible to be a major consumer of media and hardly ever have to confront a story or opinion that contradicts our values or biases.  And when media’s challenges somehow manage to break through all of the obstacles we have placed in front of them, appearing clearly enough in the mirror that is set before us, our tendency more and more is to smash the glass because we can’t cope with what we see.  We would rather have glass fragments on the floor than respond thoughtfully to an image that reflects a path to professional growth and character development, let alone to a healthier and more sustainable planet.

This is where “fake news” becomes such a toxic moniker.  What is “fake” is what does not tell me what I want to hear, what does not reflect my slanted, self-serving views of reality, what does not put me in the uncritical, positive light that I so “clearly” deserve.

I recall at the UN a couple of years ago an Ambassador from a European country commenting at a side event about how difficult it can be to read assessments from journalists indicating that he is not quite as policy savvy and virtuous as he would like to think.  But as a leader of state he also understood the value of broadly-educated, committed journalistic professionals who can shine a light on his successes and limitations, remind him of his previously stated commitments and promises, and explore the difficult choices of leadership that might better have been made differently.  Despite having things “pointed out” in public that he would have been happy to resolve (or not) privately, he understood and honored the value of this professional scrutiny to the health of his society, even if at times such scrutiny is obsessive, or one-sided, or bereft of its proper context.

And by the way, his country has one of the lowest rates of violence against journalists in the world.

In its aforementioned report, UNESCO highlights both the right to share information and opinion and the right to seek such for oneself.  These rights are important, of course, but are only part of the social contract in which professional journalists can continue to play an important role in informing democratic participation and inspiring better behavior in our leadership.   While most of us are busy “sharing” information and (especially) opinion through our personal devices, we have not outgrown the need for the expertise of professionally skilled journalists who can thoroughly investigate matters of public interest that have been deliberately hidden from view and then communicate the results with fairness and balance (and perhaps even a smidge of humility).

Journalists are not perfect in their craft, nor are any of the rest of us who seek to keep  leaders and institutions honest and point the way forward.  But journalists deserve honor and protection; indeed the first of these in some ways seems essential to achieving the second.  We urge the “Friends” group and other UN entities to continue to defend the dignity and safety of this now-maligned, but still-essential craft.

Dancing with the Stars:   The UN Engages Healers, Chroniclers and Keepers of the Peace, Dr. Robert Zuber

31 May

There is an apocryphal story that I have seen variations of in several places wherein children are asked to define a “hero.”  One child apparently responds something to the effect that a “hero is a celebrity who does something real.”

The fact that such a distinction rings as true for many of us as it does says a lot about our modern culture – one defined more by seductive branding than sacrificial substance.

We all need “heroes” in the sense of people willing to respond to crises and inspire our better selves.  What “celebrity” offers instead is distraction from the requirements of personal growth, giving us permission to evade the responsibility and willingness to become what this fractured world needs us all to be, skills and commitments that the UN recognizes it could use in greater measure as well.

Indeed, towards the middle and end of this past week, the UN lifted up three sets of ‘stars,’ people whose names few would recognize but without whose service what DSG Eliasson recently referred to as a “somber global landscape” would be that much more difficult to navigate.

Eliasson’s remarks were part of a Thursday ECOSOC event on “partnerships,” specifically health-related collaborations.  The focus of course was on the still-potent Ebola scare that ravaged three West African countries and produced extraordinary stories of courageous care.  Former US president Clinton also spoke and helped convey the need for a new health care model that incorporates sustained planning for both prevention and recovery.  As had been the case previously during various UN events from the Peacebuilding Commission to the Security Council, the ECOSOC panels looked to both the future and the past, forward to a world with fewer pandemic risks, and back to reflect on those inspiring medical workers who helped us survive the current crisis.

A day earlier, the Security Council under Lithuania’s presidency convened a debate on the protection of journalists in conflict zones.   Here again, the carnage in these zones is often debilitating but the willingness of professional journalists to risk personal safety to bring us images and narratives that can help us prevent further tragedy and ensure sound policy is quite a remarkable human achievement.  There were many welcome suggestions made in the Council as to how to better protect journalists in the field, and even concerns voiced by the Netherlands, South Africa and others that unchecked levels of violence might begin to sap the willingness of journalists to get the stories we so badly need to hear.  But all of this was within an honoring framework recognizing, as Pakistan put it, that media freedom is an “enabling right” on which our other freedoms are based.

And on Friday, the UN organized another annual ceremony to honor fallen peacekeepers, this one even more moving and respectful than the last.   Men and women in full military dress representing all of the UN’s current peacekeeping operations joined with the Secretary General and many senior diplomats to lay a wreath and verbally honor the service of peacekeepers who have risked much and largely performed admirably amidst increasingly complex mandates and unpredictable security environments.

Despite the different contexts, these health workers, journalists and peacekeepers have all chosen paths of greater resistance.  For those of us for whom subway delays and cranky co-workers are among our worst daily setbacks, what do we owe people who willingly take risks that we desperately need them to take but that most of the rest of us would choose to sit out?

The answer varies.  For the health care professionals who risked (and in some cases sacrificed) their own lives to answer the Ebola challenge, the answer seems clear – what former President Clinton referred to as a more serious investment in robust and reliable health infrastructure, but also in ‘rapid response’ mechanisms for pandemic outbreaks and in more reliable resiliency capacity to vulnerable states fearing health-related shocks – in essence honoring the courage by preventing the reoccurrence.

For journalists, while ending impunity for violence against media professionals was rightly encouraged by virtually all Council speakers, it is clear that many journalists will continue to take professional risks so long as their findings are taken seriously by the policy community.   While both are essential, the journalists I have met who work in conflict zones would rather be heeded than protected. They are willing to take risks if the stories they uncover can help save communities from further abuse – asking the “next question” in the hope that policymakers responsible for violence prevention will do likewise.

As for the peacekeepers, there seemed to be an undercurrent suggesting that receiving honor is less important than maintaining integrity and effectiveness.   As the UN wrestles with what seems to be a widening sex abuse scandal in the CAR, I recall earlier conversations with my own military veteran family members who took completely seriously violations of the military code that created disrespect for the uniform and endangered lives.  As peacekeeping operations evolve in logistical complexity in situations where peacekeeper neutrality is giving way to more robust projections of protective force, the last thing UN peacekeepers in the field need – and the last thing the rest of us should tolerate — is festering scandal.

There are times when all of us need to step back and remember the many people whose sometimes life-threatening labors are indispensable to our own futures.   But more than remembrance, there are things we can do, roles we can play, even sacrifices we can make, to respect their service and dignify their craft.  Being in the presence of heroism should inspire more from each of us. Indeed, our admiring ‘dance’ around such heroism is rather suspect if we fail to accept a commensurate responsibility for the heroic – or at least the bold – as we move through the world. To rhetorically admire acts of bravery while ignoring their specific challenges is at best unwise. So too is any avoidance of a commensurate responsibility to balance personal courage in areas such as health, journalism and peacekeeping with bold and effective global policy – something real inspired by something real.

And of course we must all do more to avoid the many pitfalls of celebrity substitutes that always linger in our overly-branded world, substitutes which even our children recognize can reduce specific acts of genuine heroism to mere caricatures of themselves.