CUSIB's Ted Lipien asks BBG to respect rights of independent journalist Matthew Russell Lee

BBG Watch Commentary

Ted Lipien

Ted Lipien

The Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB) co-founder and former Voice of America (VOA) acting associate director Ted Lipien has written an open letter to Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) members asking them to protect First Amendment rights of Inner City Press U.N.-accredited reporter Matthew Russell Lee.

The letter was sent in reaction to a request to the United Nations media department from Voice of America Executive Editor Steve Redisch to “review” Lee’s U.N. press accreditation. Redisch objected to Lee’s behavior in a dispute with some of the other journalists at the U.N., including a VOA correspondent. Redisch also appeared annoyed by emails from Lee in which Lee asked for his help in resolving the dispute with the VOA correspondent. Lee claimed that the dispute was undermining his safety due to publicity-generated threats from Sri Lankan extremists who were already unhappy with his reporting on their war crimes.

Matthew Russell Lee, Inner City Press

Matthew Russell Lee is well known as an independent reporter and human rights community activist who has exposed corruption and abuses of power in the U.S. banking industry, at the United Nations, and in countries like Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan. He is described in Wikipedia, as a public interest lawyer, author, and founder of two non-profit organizations, Inner City Press and Fair Finance Watch. The Washington Post reporter Michael Powell wrote in a 2006 article about Matthew Russell Lee that “his challenge persuaded Citigroup’s CitiFinancial Credit Co. to pay a $70 million fine to settle Federal Reserve charges of impropriety in ladling out high-interest loans to the poor.” The New York Civil Liberties Union has sent a letter to the U.N. defending his rights to an open and fair treatment in light of the Voice of America request from Steve Redisch to have his press accreditation reviewed.

Claudia Rosett, a former staff writer for The Wall Street Journal and a journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told National Review commentator: “Matthew Russell Lee has broken a series of important stories over the years — stories that without his efforts might have gone unnoticed.”

VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch

VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch

VOA’s Executive Editor, Steve Redisch, functions as VOA’s chief operating officer. He supervises the daily operations and activities of VOA’s news, programs, language services, broadcast operations, and Internet departments. He was also put in charge of reforming VOA Farsi programs to Iran.

Redisch joined VOA after a 20-year career with CNN, where he earned two Emmy Awards and a National Headliner Award. Prior to coming to VOA, he served as CNN’s Washington, D.C Deputy Bureau Chief and Executive Producer coordinating White House coverage. Some VOA employees blame his management style, his personnel decisions and his alleged hot temper for dismal employee morale, sources told BBG Watch. According to inside sources, these employees have complained about him to VOA Director David Ensor.

Matthew Russell Lee has had a number of professional conflicts with several reporters covering the U.N. He was elected by his colleagues to the Executive Committee of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA) but other Executive Committee members took action to have him expelled after he accused some of them of ethical violations. They denied these charges and accused him of unethical behavior, a charge he vigorously denies.

For Matthew Russell Lee’s side of the story see the following report on the Inner City Press website:

http://www.innercitypress.com/icpun1nycluvoa070512.html

For the UNCA’s side of the story see comments to the article in The Guardian by Roy Greenslade, “UN journalists threaten to expel reporter.”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/discussion/comment-permalink/16727910

http://www.guardian.co.uk/discussion/comment-permalink/16727913

But UNCA Executive Committee members defend Lee’s right to report from the U.N. and have not asked for his U.N. press accreditation to be lifted and neither did any of the private media organizations for which they work. Sources also told BBG Watch that VOA U.N. correspondent Margaret Besheer is well respected by other VOA reporters. It appears that the only request to review Lee’s press accreditation came from Steve Redisch who in addition to being VOA Executive Editor is also a U.S. government official.

Lipien pointed out in his letter that he does not take a position on any disputes between Lee and the VOA correspondent and other members of UNCA’s Executive Committee. He wrote, however, that he was concerned by Lee’s complaint that VOA Executive Editor Steve Redisch, a U.S. government official, did not attempt to redress a grievance from this U.S. citizen-journalist but instead tried to influence the United Nations to withdraw his press access.

“I am concerned that such actions harm Voice of America’s decades-strong reputation as a supporter of freedom of expression and undermine morale among VOA employees who are proud of their mission in defense of free media. If successful, these actions will hamper Mr. Matthew Russell Lee’s well-documented ability to report on government and private sector corruption and to advocate on behalf of the poor and the oppressed in the United States and abroad,” Ted Lipien wrote.

Lipien also sent the letter to the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Director Richard Lobo and Voice of America Director David Ensor.

The VOA’s Public Affairs office is saying that “Voice of America’s interest in this matter is to insure our correspondents can operate in a professional work environment.”

Matthew Russell Lee reported that the Broadcasting Board of Governors denied Inner City Press’ request for expedited treatment of its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, and even denied its request for a FOIA fee waiver, which for example the Federal Reserve Board routinely grants Inner City Press.

BBG Watch has learned that one BBG member, Ambassador Victor Ashe, has already responded to the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting with the following statement:

“This (whole matter involving Mr. Lee) does not help BBG. It is most unfortunate. The Board needs to be told what is really going on. Explanations are merited.”

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The open letter is reposted here from the CUSIB website.

Open Letter in Support of Media Freedom to Broadcasting Board of Governors members, International Broadcasting Bureau Director Richard Lobo and Voice of America Director David Ensor

As co-founder and director of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB) and Free Media Online, independent journalist and former Voice of America (VOA) acting associate director, I am deeply troubled by news reports — which VOA has not denied — that a Broadcasting Broad of Governors (BBG) official, Voice of America Executive Editor Steve Redisch, has written to the United Nations requesting that the U.N. press accreditation of independent journalist Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press be reviewed.

I take no position on any professional or private disputes between Mr. Matthew Russell Lee and a Voice of America correspondent and other reporters at the U.N. I am concerned, however, by Mr. Matthew Russell Lee’s complaint that a U.S. government official did not attempt to redress a grievance from this U.S. citizen-journalist but instead tried to influence the United Nations to withdraw his press access.

It is a rare occurrence these days for an official of the United States government to interfere with the independent media. It is unprecedented for an executive of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Voice of America — the U.S. federal agency set up to defend freedom of the press abroad and its premier news organization that speaks to the world on behalf of all Americans — to request that any journalist, American or foreign, be denied easy access to sources and information.

I am concerned that such actions harm Voice of America’s decades-strong reputation as a supporter of freedom of expression and undermine morale among VOA employees who are proud of their mission in defense of free media. If successful, these actions will hamper Mr. Matthew Russell Lee’s well-documented ability to report on government and private sector corruption and to advocate on behalf of the poor and the oppressed in the United States and abroad.

I respectfully urge the Board members, the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Director Richard Lobo and Voice of America Director David Ensor to look into this matter and take appropriate actions to reconfirm the Agency’s and VOA’s commitment to media freedom and transparency. I also urge that Mr. Matthew Russell Lee’s First Amendment rights be fully respected, including his right to petition the government without a fear of reprisals.

Ted Lipien
Co-Founder and Director
Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting

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