By Thalif Deen UNITED NATIONS — When the United Nations launched a new series drawing attention to “the 10 Most Under-Reported Stories of the Year,” the Department of Public Information (DPI) was apparently trying to convey a subtle message to the U.N. press corps and the mainstream media: there IS, after all, life beyond politics [...]

Sunday Times 2

A news agency for world’s most under-reported stories


By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS — When the United Nations launched a new series drawing attention to “the 10 Most Under-Reported Stories of the Year,” the Department of Public Information (DPI) was apparently trying to convey a subtle message to the U.N. press corps and the mainstream media: there IS, after all, life beyond politics (and the Security Council).

The slew of missed stories in the annual list covered a wide territory mostly unexplored: AIDS orphans in Africa; Women as Peacemakers; the Hidden World of the Stateless; Policing for Peace; the Girl Soldier; Indigenous Peoples; a Treaty for the Disabled.

These were mostly UN-related stories, traditionally neglected by the mainstream media because they were deemed “unsexy” — and therefore remained largely unreported or under-reported.

At the annual UN Correspondents' Association (UNCA) award ceremony/ black tie dinner in New York on December 20, Inter Press Service (IPS) was declared winner of a prestigious gold medal for its global and UN coverage of the environment - specifically climate change, biodiversity and water. IPS UN Bureau Chief Thalif Deen is seen receiving the award from the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

But still, at least seven or eight of the UN’s 10 most under reported stories every year had already been reported — mostly by IPS, according to Shashi Tharoor, a former Under-Secretary-General for Public Information.

Tharoor, who originated the series in 2004 when he was head of DPI, pointed out that IPS was far ahead of the curve in the UN press corps covering the global South. 

“I found IPS to be an excellent source of news and insight about the developing world, covering stories the world’s dominant media outlets too often ignored,” he told IPS.

And the wide coverage of the UN agenda — from peacekeeping and disarmament to gender empowerment and sustainable development — came mostly from the IPS Bureau at the United Nations or from far-flung IPS reporters in Asia, Africa and Latin America, said Tharoor.

“I have followed IPS’s reporting for three decades, and worked with them at close quarters during my media-related assignments at the United Nations and found that IPS reporters marry the highest professional standards of journalism to an institutional commitment to covering stories of particular concern to the global South,” he added.

“They are indispensable to any reader who wishes to stay abreast of what’s happening in developing countries around the world,” said Tharoor, currently India’s Minister of State for Human Resource Development, author of several best-selling novels, including ‘The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone.’ Tharoor’s testimonial, coming from a journalist and a prolific writer himself, was one of the best compliments showered on IPS.

During my tenure with IPS, Tharoor was one of several senior UN officials, along with Under-Secretaries-General Anwarul Karim Chowdhury and Jayantha Dhanapala, who recognised the worthiness of IPS as a news agency of the global South.

My long association with IPS goes back to 1980 — first as a stringer, then Development Editor, and finally as UN Bureau Chief.

It was May 1980 when I received a call from Tarzie Vittachi, a widely-acknowledged patron saint of IPS and chief of the information division at the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).

I was working as a military editor for Middle East/Africa at Jane’s Information Group, a defence research outfit in Connecticut, while doubling as a UN correspondent for the weekly news magazine Asiaweeek (published out of Hongkong) and the Sri Lanka Daily News.

Tarzie, one of the internationally celebrated Sri Lankan journalists and a contributing editor to Newsweek, asked me whether I would be interested in doing a piece for the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). I agreed.

Monumental bonus

When I met the head of the FAO Liaison Office in New York, I was handed the topic: an impending global food crisis (predicted as far back as 1980).

Besides the UN-blessed assignment, I was also attracted by what turned out to be an added monumental bonus: a staggering $4,000 as my fee.When I was a cub reporter in Sri Lanka in the early 1970s, I could have been commissioned to write a similar piece for an international wire service and picked up a measly 4,000 rupees (about 40 dollars at current inflated prices)– which I did on several occasions back home.
But the $4,000 was way beyond my fertile imagination — and I am still holding on to a copy of that FAO contract. But where does IPS come into the story?

My contract called for four articles, but I eventually produced only a single 1,300-word piece (much to the satisfaction of FAO, which didn’t press me for the other three). 

The contract, however, had one stipulation. I was expected to use my “best endeavour” to have the articles published in the “press of developing countries.”

Having worked as a senior editorial writer on the Hongkong Standard, deputy news editor of the Sri Lanka Daily News and a stringer for Asiaweek, I was able to plant the story (titled “Sitting in front of the TV Watching the World Go Hungry”) in several publications in Hongkong, the Philippines, Japan and Sri Lanka.

Additionally it also landed on the pages of the London Guardian’s ‘Third World Review’ which was being edited by Denzil Peiris, my former mentor and longtime editor of the Ceylon Observer, who taught me the fine art of news reporting, including the skill to give a new twist to old cliches (“as slow as a limping tortoise and a paralytic snail.”)

Around the same time, UNFPA’s Ed Kerner (who was part of the landscape at the delegate’s lounge and who regularly wined and dined the UN press corps) introduced me to Mario Dujisin, then head honcho of the IPS UN Bureau, who agreed to transmit my article to the news editor in Rome.

But he warned me that IPS, a financially struggling Third World news agency, would not be able to pay me a fee.

G-77 and IPS

What he didn’t know was I had enough moolah to do the reverse: pay IPS for publishing my story. I agreed IPS could run my piece on its wire — gratis.

But my brief encounter with IPS did not end there. A couple of years later, I got a second phone call from the journalistically ubiquitous Tarzie: this time asking me whether I would be interested in being a stringer for IPS — largely to cover the Group of 77 (G77) developing countries.

The birth of the IPS news agency in 1964 coincided with the creation of the G77, the biggest single economic grouping of 130 developing countries (plus China). 

The G77 launch took place during a month-long meeting of the Geneva-based UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in June 1964. Both the G77 and IPS were born simultaneously.

I was hired to be the first editor, mostly part-time, of the monthly Group of 77 Journal which was an editorial product of IPS published in collaboration with the Group.

Meanwhile, I continued as an IPS stringer writing specifically to a daily newsletter launched by Marc Nerfin, a vice president of IPS and head of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Switzerland.
The newsletter, edited by Chakravarathy Raghavan, was called the Special United Nations Bulletin (SUNS), currently being published as a revamped South-North Development Monitor.

Living in the shadow of the UN on 43rd street, I did most of my writing late into the evenings. I hopped across to the IPS office after dinner and worked through midnight filing copy to Rome. 

The working conditions were ideal: there were no phones ringing at that ungodly hour, and you could hear a staple drop in the eerily empty UN office building.

I was stringing for IPS while holding onto a fulltime job as Military Editor at Jane’s Information Group. In 1990, when Jane’s moved to Virginia, I opted to stay in New York and accepted an IPS offer to take up the then-vacant job of UN Bureau Chief. The timing was perfect.The UN Bureau was, at various times, headed by Deodora Roca (the pioneer), Mario Dujisin, Claude Robinson, Frank Campbell, Rajiv Tiwari and Appan Menon. 

But its longstanding Regional Director, based at the United Nations, was Marco Napoli, who gradually extended the IPS empire, originally in the Americas, to include Canada and the Caribbean. With strong moral support from Director-General Roberto Savio, Marco was an aggressive fund raiser in the UN system, and sustained strong links to all of the UN agencies based in New York.

Roberto, who made his annual pilgrimage to New York to preside over the IPS International Achievement Awards ceremony, was widely respected in the UN system for heading a news agency which was a household name in the world body.

The award ceremony at the UN delegate’s dining room was a high profile event attended by ambassadors, senior UN officials and the press corps — and the recipients added a tinge of political glamour. And Roberto made sure to bask in all its glory– deservedly too.At least two secretaries-general — Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan — were honoured with IPS awards. So were three heads of state: Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti, Martti Ahtisaari of Finland (also a Nobel laureate in 2000) and, more recently, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil.

Since IPS arrived at the United Nations 32 years ago, its UN Bureau has been covering the world body with journalistic intensity.

While the mainstream media continued to focus primarily on the politics of the world body, IPS took the least trodden path: covering mostly issues relating to the social and economic development of developing nations, including population, children, refugees, education, poverty alleviation, human rights and the environment.


Our coverage went far beyond the politics of the General Assembly and the Security Council because we also recognised the role UN agencies were playing in the economic, social and humanitarian fields.IPS coverage of the global South earned the news agency the UN’s 2008 South-South Leadership Award under the tenure of Mario Lubetkin, the current IPS head, who played a key role in protecting the cash-strapped news agency from collapsing in 2009-2010 – specifically with his untiring efforts at raising funds from financially-distressed Western donors.

The South-South award was given specifically for news coverage that promoted stronger ties among the world’s 130 developing nations and also among media outlets. The award is presented annually by the UNDP’s South-South Unit. 

Last month, IPS was awarded the gold medal by the UN Correspondents Association for its excellent coverage of the global environment – specifically climate change, biodiversity and water.

The Washington-based Population Institute, which gave its annual media awards for development reporting, singled out IPS as “the most conscientious news service” for coverage relating to population and development.

We won the award nine times beating out the major wire services year in and year out — conceding occasionally to Reuters and the Associated Press (AP).

The prize: a two-week “study tour” of population and development trends in developing nations took IPS reporters, mostly its UN Bureau Chief, to Zimbabwe, Egypt, Senegal, Turkey, Costa Rica, the Philippines, Thailand, Cuba and Sri Lanka.

Asked why his Institute kept bestowing IPS with its annual award, the president of the Population Institute Werner Fornos said: “IPS was consistently selected by the distinguished panel of judges of the Global Media Awards (chaired by Miguel Aleman, former president of Mexico) because of its accurate and high-level reporting on development issues.”Fornos also provided a fresh perspective when he pointed out that IPS coverage of development news also materially helped maintain the robust funding of UN development projects (and by extension U.N. agencies which depended on voluntary contributions from Western donors).”No other news service has come even close to providing the in-depth coverage of UN-assisted humanitarian aid projects,” he declared.

At its annual awards ceremony, the UN Correspondents’ Association (UNCA) twice recognised IPS for its excellent reporting at the United Nations.Since March 1993, the UN Bureau has been publishing uninterruptedly IPS’s flagship publication, the UN Terra Viva, which is widely read in the UN community in New York and beyond.

Currently published in electronic format, it is the oldest Monday-through-Friday publication covering the United Nations.

(* The article is excerpted from one of the chapters in a book titled “The Journalists Who Turned the World Upside Down” by Roberto Savio, and published late last year)

Share This Post

comments powered by Disqus

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.