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IFEX members concerned about candidate for UNESCO director-general

As the vote takes place to select the new Director-General of UNESCO, reports emerge of a history of severe media repression by the frontrunner
As the vote takes place to select the new Director-General of UNESCO, reports emerge of a history of severe media repression by the frontrunner

Michel Ravassard/UNESCO

Negotiations to select the next Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) underway in France must deeply consider free speech and press freedom values of candidates, report Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and other IFEX members. But according to RSF and ANHRI, the Egyptian candidate has been a key player for decades in government censorship, press freedom violations and arrest of bloggers.

The nine candidates being considered are: Ms Ina Marčiulionytė (Lithuania); Mr Mohammed Bedjaoui (Algeria); Ms Irina Gueorguieva Bokova (Bulgaria); Mr Farouk Hosni (Egypt); Mr Sospeter Mwijarubi Muhongo (United Republic of Tanzania); Mr Alexander Vladimirovich Yakovenko (Russian Federation); Ms Ivonne Juez de A. Baki (Ecuador); Ms Benita Ferrero-Waldner (Austria); and Mr Nouréini Tidjani-Serpos (Benin).

News reports say Hosni, Minister of Culture for over twenty years, is the frontrunner. According to RSF, "Hosni has been one of the leading protagonists of government censorship in the Arab Republic of Egypt... constantly seeking to control both press freedom and his fellow citizens' right to freedom of information."

Yet, "UNESCO's mandate includes promoting free expression and press freedom as basic human rights, encouraging media independence and diversity as preconditions for democratisation, and supporting the free flow of information, including on the Internet," says RSF.

The Egyptian government owns 99 percent of the country's newspaper retail outlets and has a monopoly of newspaper printing, and there are risks to being outspoken. "A total of 32 articles in different laws - including the criminal code, the press law, the publications law, etc. - stipulate penalties for the media," reports RSF. There is tight regulation of Internet use and violations are punishable by imprisonment, says RSF.

RSF then met in Paris last week with Hosni, saying he voiced a "determination to defend the freedom of the media" and "to reinforce UNESCO's actions in this domain" if he were elected. RSF relayed its concern about free expression in Egypt and, in particular, the continuing detention of two bloggers.

An opinion piece in "The Wall Street Journal" states that Hosni is unsuitable to lead UNESCO: "One can only imagine the peace in the minds of thousands of Egyptian writers, bloggers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, lecturers, broadcasters and other culture-purveyors who have been tortured, harassed, imprisoned or banned in Egypt since Mr. Hosni took office in 1987."

The Egyptian media and blogosphere have been alive with the debate. "The Daily News Egypt" writes, "The concerns over Farouk Hosni's potential ineligibility for the position of Director of UNESCO have arisen due to his anti-Semitic statements and suspicions of corruption." Hosni famously stated to parliament in May 2008 that "he would burn any Israeli books if he found them in Egyptian libraries."

In an open letter to UNESCO published in June, members of the Coordinating Committee of Press Freedom Organizations lauded the vital contributions of the outgoing UNESCO Director General Koichiro Matsuura for "consolidating UNESCO as a force for freedom of expression and to furthering free speech and press freedom values." The letter was signed by five IFEX members: World Press Freedom Committee, Committee to Protect Journalists, Inter American Press Association, the International Press Institute, and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.

The Coordinating Committee members called upon UNESCO member-states to focus on a commitment to freedom of expression as the core criteria in considering the choice of the next Director-General. This includes a commitment to fostering independent news media, selecting independent journalists widely respected by their colleagues as members of the Jury for UNESCO's annual World Press Freedom Prize, and speaking out publicly against assassinations of news media personnel and policies that obstruct the work of the news media.

Other IFEX members are sending letters of concern to Board members.

Representatives from 58 nations who make up UNESCO's Executive Board begin voting on 17 September. If a candidate does not win a simple majority, there will be up to five rounds of voting that will finish on 23 September 2009. Following this decision, a final vote will be taken by all members of the UNESCO General Conference in October.

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