Saturday, November 06, 2010

Brothers only in a rent-free world*

HOW do you kill news coverage?

Raise the rent of a journalist’s office.

A press association covering the United Nations (UN) said that if the international organization charges the media rent for their headquarters, the news coverage will become a trickle and the UN will be “just another international organization that only makes headlines when bedbugs are found there.”

According to a report filed by the Inter Press Service’s (IPS) Thalif Deen, the United Nations Correspondents’ Association (Unca) protested that even a “symbolic rent” will “drive most members of the press out of the United Nations”.

The Unca represents 200 full-time members of the UN press corps. For the past 60 years, the UN press corps occupied rent-free offices in the UN Secretariat headquarters in New York.

While the Unca said that the UN press is “not here on a free ride,” it said that rent would be an “unjustifiable expenditure given the severe financial stress” of the industry.

According to the Unca letter sent to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the “severe financial stress” cited by the press corps includes the salaries for reporters covering the UN full-time, equipment and infrastructure for multimedia global broadcast.

The UN press corps also complained that after the $1.8-billion renovation of the NY headquarters, the offices for media will be narrower and open—features they view as detrimental for “serious journalist work”.

The Unca wants their offices to be “closed, soundproofed, adequately wired and adequately sized”—and still rent-free.

I remember the sound of children singing as October drew to a close. Students of a nearby preschool, they were singing songs from other lands, as well as those about brotherhood and peace.

In the Philippines and other nations, UN Day and UN Week are observed in many schools during October.

Remembering that young chorus after reading the IPS report, I wonder how minutiae like rent will affect the singing.

In a world leery of good intentions, the UN endures—because, if we believe the Unca, the body hosts journalists that never blink in covering this beat in exchange for free rent.

As a news consumer, I’m at a quandary deciding which is more alarming: that the UN’s good press was influenced by favors to the media, or that without this preferential treatment for journalists, the UN beat is not fit covering unless hit by a minor disaster, like bedbugs piercing diplomatic immunity?

According to the IPS report, the journalists that may have to vacate offices they can no longer afford will be going home to developing nations. These are reporters writing for either domestic news agencies or dailies published in the Third World.

I’m not privy to the “severe financial stress” of running a multimedia outfit from NY and transmitting to the world. Surely, a media company won’t enter this arena equipped only with cojones.

Or is that a Third World affliction to be graceless about giving up what used to come for free?

UN officials say that collecting rent from journalists was proposed because of the “tens of millions of dollars” spent to rent outside office space for UN staffers displaced by the UN correspondents.

The Fourth Estate is important, affirms the UN. However, in commercial market terms, the freedom to cover and report cannot be subsidized forever.

Focused on the unhappy journalists, the IPS report is not as forthcoming about the other side. Are UN executives just unhappy about the lost income or the sparse gains bought by the rent subsidies?

Completing this triad of discontent is the public. Reading the IPS report alters for me the singing that always caps my October.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 7, 2010 issue of the “Matamata”, a Sunday column

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