Thursday, August 6, 2009

UN fund kowtows to China press restrictions

The Common Fund for Commodities is a little-known inter-governmental financial organisation, set up under the auspices of the United Nations to help fund the exploitation of commodities from bananas to bamboo in developing countries.

The Common Fund is holding a big international conference in China later this month on "the importance of commodities in economic development of Asian countries and on the role the Common Fund can play in assisting countries in the region to make full use of their commodity-related potential".

As part of the Common Fund's drive to reach out and explain its work to the wider world, it initially announced that it would sponsor journalists to cover the conference, paying either for their flight to China or hotel costs.

I was one of the few who contacted the Common Fund about this opportunity and they seemed keen to get me to come along, promising to set up interviews with all the head honchos so that their work could be better understood.

However, having submitted all the necessary registration documents, I was surprised to receive the following email yesterday from Charles Jama in the Common Fund's communications department in Amsterdam:

I regret to inform you that we have reconsidered the media sponsorship program for the China meeting and will not be extending the offer to journalists NOT based or credentialled by the Press Bureau in the MoFA in Beijing.

The call for journalists to apply for sponsorship on the Common Fund's homepage was removed yesterday.

When I asked Guy Sneyers, the chief operating officer of the Common Fund, if he wanted to provide an official explanation for this sudden change of heart, he replied with a one-word answer: "no".

It is very disappointing (if not entirely surprising) to see an inter-governmental organisation with 107 member states that was set up under the UN framework caving in to Chinese press controls in such a meak fashion.

Without any proper explanation from the Common Fund, I can only guess at the reasons for their rapid about-turn. It was quite possibly simply because they could not be bothered to deal with the voluminous paperwork and bureaucracy necessary to procure a visa for a visiting journalist in China.

If that's the case, they are playing straight into the hands of the Chinese government which, like other authoritarian regimes, makes it very complicated for journalists to get visas precisely because they want to put foreign reporters off coming in the first place.

So that's Chinese censorship 1, UN 0.

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