A few days ago I sent a comment piece to the London Guardian for publication. They did not run it. Perhaps it was not good enough. Or perhaps I pushed my luck in being too unduly cynical about World Press Freedom Day event run by UNESCO in Washington featuring a star-studded line up. I lamented the trite sound bites that make no difference to the plight of journalists who, these days, cannot rely on international institutions to defend their rights when they disappear or are jailed or murdered.
I said that UNESCO has, for decades, proclaimed itself as the prime body within the United Nations dedicated to defending press freedom and the freedom of expression. Yet its cosy relationship with various government left many journalists wondering whether UNESCO has got its priorities right. In 2009, UNESCO chose to hold its World Press Freedom Day in Qatar, a country that deny journalists the right to form their own association or union, control their freedom of movement and force foreign journalists working there to hand over their passports to editors and seek an official exit permit to leave the country. In protest, the International Federation of Journalists advised its affiliates worldwide to boycott the event. UNESCO remained silent.
The following year, human rights organisations launched a global campaign to force the same UNESCO to drop plans to award a prize to one of the world’s leading abusers of press freedom, President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea. A couple of years before, UNESCO had accepted a multi-million dollar donation from the dictator to subsidise an award in life science. This was perceived as a pay back move that would have boosted the standing of the notorious despot, who ruled the West African nation with an iron fist and never held back from oppressing journalists, subjecting them to frequent harassment, imprisonment and censorship. In the end, the coalition of human rights organisations won the day as they forced UNESCO's executive board to drop their plans. But why did they agree to them in the first place?
The record of the UN itself is not without blemish. Years of campaign by the International Federation of Journalists finally forced its Security Council to adopt resolution 1738 in December 2008, putting the onus on governments to protect journalists. This was hailed as a landmark in the global fight against impunity in the murders of journalists. Sadly, despite the odd gushing statement by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the resolution has been left gathering dust and many governments remain able to avoid opprobrium when, under their watch, journalists are targeted and killed by the enemies of press freedom. In some instances the Secretary-General squandered the opportunity to speak out, such as when, under pressure from the Chinese Government, he refrained from congratulating Nobel Peace Prize winner journalist Liu Xiaobo.
The regional groups are spineless too. Journalists under fire in Asia, the Middle East and Africa expect little support, if any, from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Arab League, or the African Union, whose headquarters are located in Ethiopia, a known abuser of press freedom, and its human rights body based in the Gambia, a known jailer of journalists.
I was not off the mark. I received on World Press Freedom Day last Tuesday a note from one of the participants at the session in Washington briefing me about the final declaration adopted by the meeting. The statement which, apparently was defended at great length by Janis Karklin, Assistant General-Director of Communications and Information for UNESCO, included a paragraph with clearly attempted to restrict the freedom of expression on the Internet, using the well-rehearsed argument of fighting child pornography. My source told me that the text seems to have shamelessly breached article 19 of the Human Rights Declaration. Is it yet another faux-pas by UNESCO? I am itching to lay my hand on the passed text to see what new turn UNESCO has taken. The jury is out.