UN Credentialing Limits Reporters' Access to Copenhagen Talks

December 2, 2009

Non-profit media, online media, freelancers, student journalists, and even some mainstream media are having trouble getting credentials to cover the climate treaty talks in Copenhagen Dec. 7-18, 2009.

While one root of the problem may be too many reporters trying to fill too little space, obsolete and conservative policies in the U.N. bureaucracy may be hindering journalists' access to the talks.

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change press operation announced this week that it is suspending issuance of press credentials for the talks because the number of reporters applying has exceeded the capacity of the building. UNFCCC says it will review the situation as the meeting opens, to see whether no-shows allow it to squeeze a few more in. But chances of getting in for reporters whose applications have not been approved to date seem slim to none.

A key issue is whether non-profits, bloggers, and freelancers are truly legitimate media. As print dailies, TV networks, and even news services severely cut their staffs and overseas operations, the former outsiders may be doing as much climate coverage as the mainstream media. So systematically excluding them from covering the Copenhagen talks could in effect restrict the free flow of information.

Yet according to WatchDog interviews with a number of journalists who have been refused credentials by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change press operation, that is just what is going on. Journalists denied credentials have been told in writing that the reason is that they work for non-profits or publications that are exclusively online.

Discriminating this way among journalists and media organizations can affect how the news at the talks is covered. Many of the most experienced journalists, with the deepest and most specialized knowledge of climate science and diplomacy, work for non-profits and online media. Excluding them leaves coverage to be dominated by general assignment reporters — who may be more likely to misunderstand the story — and whose misunderstanding may be amplified by their larger audiences.

Journalists whose credential applications are pending — much less those who have credentials -- told the WatchDog they are highly reluctant to speak critically of the UNFCCC press apparatus because they fear it could bias UNFCCC officials against them. The criteria used by UNFCCC have not always been consistent.

One outlet told the WatchDog of having a group of its reporters who applied early get credentials easily — but meeting with difficulties when it asked UNFCCC to credential one more reporter in the past month. Editors at that publication viewed the change as arbitrary.

Most stories of credentials being denied have cropped up since the beginning of November. There may be a reason.

As the December date of the Copenhagen talks has neared, there has been an upsurge of media interest in the talks worldwide. As more heads of state have announced that they will attend, more news media have sought to cover the event. For example, after President Obama announced he was going, a fresh spate of credential applications went in from the White House press corps. Reportedly, not all of those applications have yet been approved.

Many journalists who cover climate regularly applied for their credentials months ago — indeed, some were previously credentialed by the UNFCCC for previous sessions of the talks in Bangkok, Barcelona, and other venues. The large volume of journalists seeking to cover the final summit talks in Copenhagen has by most accounts already exceeded the capacity of the Bella Center there to physically accommodate them. Whereas the UNFCCC might not have needed to be selective a month or two ago, it needs to be selective now, or facilities will be swamped. This is little consolation to climate journalists who can not get in.

UNFCCC says it has received over 5,000 requests for credentials from journalists, and that the total capacity of the building — for journalists, delegates, international groups, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is 15,000.

A press badge is required to get through the security perimeter at the Bella Center, which is the best place to waylay and interview delegates and players. But not the only way. The badge gets a reporter into open meetings, but not closed meetings. Rules are different for TV crews, whose numbers are even more tightly limited and who will be working through organized pools and official feeds.

Limitations on press access will only serve to shift the story to realms outside the meeting rooms of the Bella Center. Street demonstration and "side events" will be plentiful, and these may get more attention than the formal sessions themselves from excluded journalists.

Some excluded journalists are shifting to the "Fresh Air Center," a media facility operated by the advocacy coalition "tcktcktck." The group describes it as  "a rapid response digital media hub in Copenhagen for top global bloggers and digital campaigners." They add: "Our goal is to help civil society define the narratives coming from COP-15…."

The Fresh Air Center will maintain facilities both inside and outside the security perimeter. The Fresh Air Center has also served as a conduit or sponsor for credential applications, although about half of some 60 applications they put in were rejected.

The criteria used by the UNFCCC secretariat may serve to credential preferentially media with particular viewpoints while excluding others less in the mainstream. For example, the WatchDog has been told that all applications from Democracy Now! — a progressive radio network — were rejected.

The UNFCCC press office uses criteria nearly identical to those used for the UN as a whole — and those are considered conservative by those familiar with them. A fuller explanation of the criteria is available at this UNFCCC site.

UN rules do not allow a person to be credentialed in two categories — media and NGO, for example, or media and delegate.

Because of the tight restrictions on media credentials, some working journalists have found credentials under NGO auspices.

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