One of the fixtures of the UN press corps spent the first three days of this week reporting out of a public park.
Lee sat with his laptop just feet away from a towering metal sculpture and a broad flight of stairs named after the Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky — and across the street from the UN’s Manhattan headquarters.
That day, Lee wasn’t allowed in the complex sprawling across the other side of 1st Avenue without someone signing him in as a guest. The park was the closest he could get to the UN.
“It’s so different doing it this way,” Lee, who had his UN resident correspondent credentials abruptly stripped from him last Friday, told Business Insider. People were occasionally bringing him files, but Lee said running his phone as a wifi hotspot limited his ability to contact sources.
He was also hampered by his distance from the center of the action after being cast out of the institution he covered for nearly a decade.
“Today the Security Council voted on Yemen sanctions,” Lee told Business Insider. “People are tweeting at me asking, what does it mean?”
The UN headquarters towered over the opposite side of 1st Avenue, the neatly set tables of the delegates’ dining visible through 4th-story window, and the front gates opening for the occasional black SUV. When Business Insider met Lee on Wednesday morning, he had just finished watching a briefing on the humanitarian situation in Syria on his laptop.
But for the first time since 2006, the work of the United Nations — significant and scandalous at times but usually just as plodding and routinized as that of any other large organisation — was continuing without him.
On the afternoon of February 19, UN security presented Lee with a letter, signed by UN Under-Secretary-General for Communication and Public Information Cristina Gallach informing him he had until 5 p.m. to clean out his office. According to Lee, the letter said his pass was revoked as the result of a January 29 incident, in which he watched, recorded, and live-tweeted a meeting of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA) from an interpreter’s booth in the UN press briefing room.
Although Lee was not invited to the meetup, he claimed no closed meetings could be held in the briefing room and that he was within his rights to cover the event.
Stephane Dujarric, the spokesperson UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, told Business Insider that Lee had violated the UN correspondents’ accepted standards of behaviour in entering an interpreter’s booth to observe what was considered to be a closed meeting and then refusing to leave the briefing room.
“You have more than 150 resident corespondents here, and nothing physically stops them from poking along on different floors and going places they shouldn’t go,” Dujarric told Business Insider. “If over 99% of the people behave when there’s somebody who clearly breaks the rules there has to be a little bit of consequences. Otherwise it doesn’t work.”
Lee has reported extensively on alleged corruption within the UN system, a beat he claims his press corps colleagues have ignored. He’s had a contentious relationship with UNCA — he actually served as a vice president of the organisation but quit in 2012 to found the Free UN Coalition for Access — and has been generally critical of the UN press corps.
He believes the UN-based press is passive, deferential, and generally incurious about the organisation they’re supposed to be covering.
“A number of people have said to me look, just write about the UN. Don’t write about the journalists at the UN. I didn’t come here to do that, but I’ve concluded that that’s part of the story,” Lee told Business Insider.
“The place is legally protected,” Lee says, in reference to the UN’s immunity under the US law, the result of the US’ 1970 accession to the Convention on Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations. “But it’s also journalistically protected.”
Lee says that February 19, he was marched out of UN headquarters by UN security guards, who Lee claims had physically ripped his press badge off of him.
He claims that he was removed from the UN “without the most basic due-process,” and says he was never questioned over the details of the January 29 incident — the details of which are still in dispute.
When contacted for comment, the Office of the Undersecretary General for Communications and Public Information did not deny that Lee had never been questioned over the incident before his pass was revoked.
“In conducting its investigation into the incident on 29 January, [Department of Public Information] reviewed several videos of what happened, including footage that was taken by Mr. Lee and posted on his website,” a representative of the office wrote in an email to Business Insider. “DPI also spoke at length with the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General and officers from the UN Department of Safety and Security who were in attendance on 29 January. These steps were sufficient to determine that Mr. Lee’s actions clearly infringed the guidelines that apply to all correspondents at the United Nations.”
Lee thinks he was summarily ejected from the UN press corps. “The UN cannot be throwing journalists into the street,” says Lee. “More fundamentally, the UN cannot do a supposed investigation of an incident for three weeks without talking to the defendant once. Not once.”
Still, on Wednesday, Lee said he had everything he needed to cover the UN from across the street, even if his situation was far from ideal. Since Monday, he had been emailed documents from contacts in Burundi, and one of his sources had handed him a draft version of a Security Council resolution, which he scanned at a nearby FedEx store. He had written a story on press freedom in South Sudan that morning.
And he had discovered a way to save himself from having to hunt for a power outlet at a nearby coffee shop: A line of lights running across the ceiling of the construction scaffold had an electrical socket. And while the socket hovers awkwardly from a ceiling roughly 6 feet off the ground, the day before, a man who Lee says he had seen frequently in the park — a Haitian immigrant who claimed to be a former journalist, and who would often talk to Lee about affairs in his country of origin — promised to find him an extension chord. Sure enough, he brought one in a black plastic bag, which was sitting on a park bench next Lee’s laptop.
The scaffold was enough to keep his computer dry amid a persistent rain, although cold raindrops flecked the outer edges of his computer screen. A wireless mouse sat on top of a damp packet of papers.
Lee was exhibiting remarkable durability amid a punishing February downpour. “As you see, we’re perfectly dry here,” he said, although that wasn’t entirely true.
Thanks to the UN’s immunity under US law, the world body is practically a state unto itself, and Lee has little recourse outside of the UN system. Lee realises he can’t sue his way back into resident correspondent status. He could start building political pressure — Lee is an American citizen, and the US is the UN’s largest budgetary contributor. But he says he’s “queasy about saying no no, wait a second, this is the UN, I’ve got the US behind me.”
Lee had a potential ticket out of Ralph Bunche park, though. During Monday’s noon press briefing, Dujarric, the UN spokesman, confirmed the world body had offered him a “non-resident correspondent” pass on a four-month trial basis. As a result of his new status, Lee claims he would have to vacate his office, work out of a reporters’ bullpen, and leave UN headquarters by 6 p.m. each day (Dujarric confirmed to Business Insider that Lee would have vacate his office under his new status).
On Wednesday Lee told Business Insider he won’t accept reduced access, even though he’s willing to acknowledge wrongdoing as part of some full restoration of his earlier status.
“You say we had a misunderstanding, you did something we don’t like, we overreacted, why don’t you clean my garage and we move on. That’s how I view it. That’s not how they view it. They view it as like, no, we didn’t make a mistake, you made a mistake.”
As Lee notes, the UN is notably unwilling to admit wrongdoing. “They didn’t apologise for killing 10,000 people in Haiti,” Lee says, in reference to the UN’s role in that country’s cholera epidemic, “so I don’t expect them to apologise for pushing me into the street.”
The UN was a vague curtain of blue-tinted windows hovering across a damp 1st Avenue. Although behind a security cordon and a high black fence, it was a place that Lee had come to know intimately over a decade of coverage. It was a place he didn’t want to return to on anything less than his own terms.
“If I took this deal I’m hurting my readers, viewers, and the entire profession of journalism because I’m sending a message that if you ask hard questions they can screw you and you take it because you’re desperate,” Lee said. “And I am desperate. I want to be there. But I’m not so desperate that I’m going to sell out, you know?”
By Thursday, he had changed his mind.
Dujarric told Business Insider that Lee actually had picked up his green pass, and was back in the building working — even though he would still have to clean out of his office.
I asked Lee by email why he had opted for a course that he had described as capitulation just a day earlier.
“Thought about it a lot,” he wrote, noting that he was “working on lawyer’s letter demanding no touching of office or files until this is resolved.”
Then he listed nearly a half-dozen events unfolding inside Turtle Bay — topics that would be obscure even to some international news junkies.
“Needed to cover today’s North Korea, and tomorrow’s Syria, UNSC meetings wanted to ask the UN, in the noon briefing, about Ban Ki-moon covering up or over the problems in Burundi, including of press freedom (only two of five radio stations re-opened, with agreements on what they can say — like UN is trying) and about Western Sahara, Darfur repatriation scoop I wrote yesterday in park,” and allegations of corruption within the UN system “which I came back in and asked about. So here I am.”