Sunday, December 07, 2008

Editorial: UNESCO Withdraws from RWB Online Free Expression Day

Reporters Without Borders last week launched the "Online Free Expression Day".
“From now on, we will organise activities every 12 March to condemn cyber-censorship throughout the world,” Reporters Without Borders said. “A response of this kind is needed to the growing tendency to crack down on bloggers and to close websites."
The organization has issued an updated list of “Internet Enemies” as part of its actions to mark this day.
There are 15 countries in this year’s Reporters Without Borders list of “Internet Enemies” - Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zimbabwe. There were only 13 in 2007. The two new additions to the traditional censors are both to be found in sub-Saharan Africa: Zimbabwe and Ethiopia.

“This is not at all surprising as these regimes regularly hound the traditional media,” Reporters Without Borders says in the introduction to its report.“Internet penetration is very slight, but nevertheless sufficient to give them a few nightmares. They follow the example of their seniors and draw on the full arsenal of online censorship methods including legislation, monitoring Internet cafés and controlling ISPs.”

There is also a supplementary list of 11 “countries under watch.” They are Bahrain, Eritrea, Gambia, Jordan, Libya, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Thailand, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Unlike the “enemies,” these countries do not imprison bloggers or censor the Internet massively. But they are sorely tempted and abuses are common. Many of them have laws that they could use to gag the Internet if they wanted. And the judicial or political authorities often use anti-terrorism laws to identify and monitor government opponents and activists expressing themselves online.
Simultaneously, RWB reported:
Reporters Without Borders learned last night that UNESCO has withdrawn its patronage for today’s Online Free Expression Day. We were notified of the decision by the director of its Freedom of Expression, Democracy and Peace Division. Defending the move, UNESCO said it gave its patronage for the “principle of this day” but could not support the various demonstrations organised to mark it.
UNESCO's charter calls for it to support freedom of information and the press, and UNESCO has supported RWB in the past:
More than a third of the world's people live in countries where there is no press freedom. Reporters Without Borders works constantly to restore their right to be informed.
I was unable to find an explanation on the UNESCO website of its withdrawal, and indeed I was unable to find any mention of "Online Free Expression Day." However, the Latin American News Agency (headquartered in Havana, Cuba) Prensa Latina reports:
A UNESCO diplomatic source told Prensa Latina on Wednesday that the UN body had made the decision based on RSF´s "reiterated lack of ethics" and its attempts to discredit a given number of countries.

UNESCO"s profile or purposes are not in line with RSF"s performance for sensationalist interest nor it is acting as a court of inquisition for developing nations, the source said.

For this and other causes the UN body definitely declared the relation with RSF closed, and excluded any kind of collaboration in the future.
Editorial comment: It has always seemed to me that Reporters Without Borders is a highly reputable organization, performing an important function. I agree that the analysis by RWB is probably correct:
“We are not fooled,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Several governments on today’s updated list of 15 ‘Internet Enemies’ put direct pressure on the office of the UNESCO director general, and deputy director general Marcio Barbosa caved in. UNESCO’s reputation has not been enhanced by this episode. It has behaved with great cowardice at a time when the governments that got it to stage a U-turn continue to imprison dozens of Internet users.”
The United States Government should investigate UNESCO's conduct in this matter. If indeed UNESCO has yielded to the pressures of countries identified by RWB as impinging on freedom of expression on the Internet and is withdrawing from its charter responsibilities to safeguard freedom of expression the U.S. Government should make the strongest possible protest.

John Daly
(The opinion is that of the author and does not necessarily represent that of Americans for UNESCO.)


Will Shetterly said...

I respected RWB until I learned more about them. Especially troubling was their hiding of their ties to the National Endowment for Democracy. It is hard to trust people who lie for political gain.

I've written a bit about what I learned here.

John Daly said...

The website of Reporters Without Borders identifies the National Endowment for Democracy as a foundation that providing RWB with funding. While the National Endowment is primarily funded by the U.S. Government, it is open about that fact and is formally a non-governmental organization.

John Daly said...

UNESCO has published an explanation of its withdrawal of patronage for the event.

Will Shetterly said...

I had already linked to the UNESCO explanation. It simply notes that RWB acted unethically. RWB has a history of doing that.

You might be interested in The Reporters Without Borders Fraud. RWB didn't admit its ties to the NED until it was outed in 2005. As for the NED, being funded by the US government makes it a very odd sort of NGO. It has funded anti-democratic movements in Haiti, Venezuela, and elsewhere. Conservatives like Ron Paul and liberals like Noam Chomsky both hate it, because it makes a mockery of democracy.

John Daly said...

Thank you, Will, for the new comment. I realized that you had seen the UNESCO explanation, but I was correcting my original posting in the comment above.

Indeed, the National Endowment for Democracy is an unusual NGO, having been created following an initiative by President Reagan, having most of its budget from Congressional appropriations, and governed by a bipartisan Board heavily populated by political heavy hitters.

But then the network of national foundations promoting democracy is composed of unusual organizations.

The National Academies are Congressionally chartered, and depend primarily on government funding, but are fiercely independent in their statements and advocacy. I would guess that the NED was designed to promote democracy rather than to promote the political positions of the party in the White House.

Cleary RWB, which advocates freedom of the press, and the NED, which promotes democracy including independent media, have interests in common.

You seem to suspect that RWB is somehow tainted by accepting money from NED, and I have no way to know whether that is true. Clearly officials of RWB deny that and clearly organizations can be allied without undue influence by one on the other.