Who will lead UNESCO?

Being director general of UNESCO is the definition of a plum diplomatic job. Headquartered in Paris, UNESCO’s mandate is to promote cultural exchanges and scientific research, or, as its charter more grandly puts it, “peace in the minds of men.” With the term of the current UNESCO head coming to an end, the diplomatic battle to choose a successor is heating up. 

Last week, UNESCO released a list of candidates. There are several strong contenders to succeed the current director, Koichiro Matsuura, who has been widely recognized as a staunch defender of press freedom.

But there are others with a troubled record. Much concern has been raised about the Egyptian candidate, Farouk Hosny, reputed to be a close friend of Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak. As culture minister, Hosny has banned movies in Egypt and famously pledged to burn any Israeli books he found in Egyptian libraries. He’s apologized for that statement, but many European countries continue to have grave doubts about his record, as described in this New York Times article.

CPJ and other groups sent a letter to the executive board of UNESCO calling on “member-states to reaffirm their commitments to the defense and promotion of freedom of expression and press freedom.” UNESCO backs freedom of expression by supporting funding for media development, bestowing an annual press freedom prize, and speaking out about violence and abuses of the press.

In the 1970s and ’80s, UNESCO was the scene of a pitched ideological battle over a proposal to reshape the world information order. Countries in the developing world and Eastern Bloc backed proposals to grant the state broad latitude to intervene in the media to, for example, break up monopolies, license foreign correspondents, or ensure that underrepresented groups received coverage. For the U.S. and countries in Western Europe, this was a pretext to allow governments to exert control over the media and dictate the limits of public discourse. In protest, the U.S. pulled out of UNESCO in 1984, rejoining in 2003.

No one inside UNESCO or outside wants to relive these stale battles. But they are a reminder that the director general does have the ability of shape the international debate over free expression. For this reason, CPJ and other press freedom groups will be watching the succession process carefully.  

Click here for a list of candidates.

Click here for a letter from press freedom groups to UNESCO.