Independent journalist Matt Lee forcibly removed from UN, stripped of press credentials
Matt Lee — an independent journalist who covers the United Nations — was forcibly removed by security from the UN headquarters in New York City on July 3, 2018. The UN’s Media Accreditation and Liaison Unit (MALU) later withdrew his press credentials, denying him access to the UN building.
Lee extensively and aggressively covers the United Nations on his website, Inner City Press.
Until 2016, he was accredited as a “resident correspondent” at the UN, with his own office in the building. As a resident correspondent, he was allowed to stay in the building after-hours and on weekends and was not required to undergo a security check every time he entered the UN headquarters building.
But on February 19, 2016, Lee’s press accreditation was downgraded from “resident correspondent” to “non-resident correspondent” after he livestreamed a private meeting of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA). There is no love lost between Lee and UNCA. Lee joined UNCA shortly after he began covering the UN in 2005, but left the association on bad terms in 2012 after reporting on a potential conflict of interest involving UNCA’s then-president.
The UNCA meeting was held on January 29, 2016, in the UN media briefing room, which is open to all accredited journalists at the United Nations. Although UNCA wanted to use the briefing room to hold a members-only meeting, Lee insisted that he had the right to stay in the briefing room and even to livestream the meeting. UNCA complained to UN staff, who eventually cajoled Lee to leave.
In the aftermath of that incident, the UN stripped Lee of his “resident correspondent” status, making him a non-resident correspondent. Lee lost his office and his carte blanche access to the UN headquarters building.
According to the United Nations Media Guidelines, non-resident correspondents are generally not allowed to be in the UN building after 7 p.m.:
Non-Resident Correspondents can access UNHQ through the Visitors' Entrance on 46th Street and 1st Avenue between 0800–1900 hours from Monday through Friday. Non-resident Correspondents only have access to UNHQ on weekends or after hours accompanied by a resident correspondent or when a meeting is advised as taking place. Entry will be allowed two hours prior to the start of the meeting. At the conclusion of the meeting, the non-Resident correspondent must exit the premises within an hour, unless accompanied by a resident correspondent.
UN Media Guidelines
On July 3, 2018, Lee was in the UN building after 7 p.m., having stayed past curfew to cover an all-day UN budget meeting that continued late into the night. The meeting was not open to the public or press, so Lee had “staked out” the meeting, waiting outside of the room to speak with attendees as they entered or exited the meeting room. Around 10 p.m., he conducted a brief interview with Tommo Monthé, a Cameroonian diplomat who chairs the budget committee, and then headed over to a café area to type up his interview notes.
According to Lee, he was typing up his interview notes in the café when two UN security guards approached him and grabbed him, ordering him to leave the premises. Lee refused, insisting that he had the right to be in the building because he was a journalist covering a meeting. The altercation with the guards left Lee with a ripped shirt and an injured arm.
As Lee was being escorted outside, he spoke to Christian Saunders, an assistant secretary general. Lee livestreamed his conversation with Saunders and later uploaded portions of it to YouTube.
“I’m a journalist covering a six billion dollar budget, and these guys tore my shirt, tour my pass right in front of you,” Lee says to Saunders in the video. “You’re an assistant secretary general. Is that OK with you?”
“The budget hearings are the propriety of member states, and it’s a closed budget hearing,” Saunders says.
Lee refuses to leave, arguing that he has the right as a journalist to stand outside of the budget meeting and interview diplomats, while Saunders repeatedly tells Lee that he needs to obey the security guards’ orders to leave.
Lee, who appears to be very shaken up by the altercation, repeatedly refers to the security guards as “thugs” and criticizes them for using physical force against him.
“Seriously! I was sitting there typing,” he says to one of the security guards as they escort him out of the building. “You really have to push my neck, right? Something is wrong with you. You should be fired. If you were in the NYPD, you would be fired right now because I’m not resisting. You had no right to touch my computer. You had no right to tear my shirt!”
On July 4, the day after Lee was removed from the building, he filed a police report against the UN for assault.
On July 5, the UN suspended his press credentials, pending the conclusion of an investigation into his behavior. Without UN press credentials, Lee was not allowed entrance into the UN headquarters building. Instead, he had to cover the UN from a bus stop across the street.
Although the investigation initially focused on the July 3 incident, but it soon expanded into a more general review of Lee’s behavior and professionalism. The review considered numerous complaints made about Lee’s behavior by UN member states, UN staff, and Lee’s fellow UN correspondents. Lee was not given any opportunity to respond to any of the complaints against him.
On August 17, the UN notified Lee in a letter that it had concluded its review and decided to withdraw his press accreditation.
This review has indicated repeated breaches of the [UN Media] Guidelines, including the following recorded breaches of the specific provisions of the Guidelines stated above:
(i) presence on United Nations premises outside authorized time periods as stipulated in the Guidelines;
(ii) presence in locations of the United Nations premises not authorized by the Guidelines;
(iii) conduct towards Member State diplomats and United Nations staff, including recording and live broadcasting without consent or [Media Accreditation and Liaison Unit] approval and without due regard to privacy, in breach of the Guidelines; and
(iv) conduct on United Nations premises towards other accredited United Nations correspondents and media outlets, including videos/live broadcasts using profanities and derogatory assertions towards them without due regard to their dignity, privacy and integrity, in breach of the Guidelines.
In addition, following several of the breaches of the Guidelines referenced above, you refused to comply with directions issued by United Nations security officers.
Letter to Matt Lee withdrawing press accreditation
Lee believes that the UN leadership is retaliating against him because he has reported on their apparent conflicts of interest and corruption. The UN, for its part, says that it objects only to Lee’s behavior, not his reporting.
“Just like the White House, access is not a right, it’s a privilege,” UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told the Columbia Journalism Review. “None of this is happening now because of what he writes. … He creates an atmosphere of incivility within our working environment.”
But it is difficult to separate Lee’s behavior from his reporting. He is an aggressive reporter, in every sense of the word. He is dedicated to exposing the corruption and conflicts of interest that he believes permeate the UN, and he has little patience for those who refuse to talk to him. Although his breathless posts on Inner City Press and his commentary-filled livestreams may often seem hyperbolic and conspiratorial, Lee has done important investigative journalism on some of the unsavory influence-peddling that underlies diplomacy at the UN.
In particular, he has reported on the UN’s close relationships with unsavory regimes in places like Cameroon, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
Recently, Lee has reported that the UN leadership has soft-pedaled criticism of Cameroon’s human rights abuses at the same time that it has tried to win budgetary concessions from the Cameroonian diplomat who chairs the UN budget committee. That is the reason that he was covering the budget meeting late at night on July 3, which led to him being forcibly escorted out of the building.
Lee has suggested that the UN roughed him up and expelled him from the UN building on July 3 as part of a conspiracy to stop him from reporting on the UN’s relationship with Cameroon. It’s more likely that Lee was ordered to leave the building because it was after 7 p.m. and he was a non-resident correspondent. Still, whether intentional or not, the UN's actions have had the effect of making it more difficult for Lee to report on conflicts of interest at the UN.