Each year, UNESCO honors a courageous international journalist with the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, named in honor of the Colombian editor murdered in 1986 by the Medellín Cartel. The prize is chosen by an independent jury and over the years I’ve attended several moving ceremonies in which some of the most daring journalists of our generation have been honored.
I have been inspired to see journalists like Geoffrey Nyarota from Zimbabwe and Raúl Rivero from Cuba receive their due. But the Cano prize is also an opportunity for UNESCO, the Paris-based U.N. agency created to promote culture, science, and education, to burnish its own image.
But that image is threatened by a plan to create a new prize for research in the life sciences named in honor of one of Africa’s most notorious press freedom abusers–President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea. Last month, CPJ and 29 other press freedom organizations sent a letter to Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, outlining Equatorial Guinea’s abysmal press freedom record and urging her to oppose the prize, which was authorized by UNESCO’s 58-member executive council.
The fate of the prize is expected to be determined at a special meeting of UNESCO in Paris on June 15. Today, Cano laureates, including Moníca González from Chile, Lydia Cacho from Mexico, Nizar Nayyouf from Syria, Cheng Yizhong from China, plus Nyarota and Rivero, wrote to Bokova urging her to oppose the prize. The letter, below, speaks for itself (click to read PDFs in English, Spanish, and French). An organization whose mandate is to promote freedom of expression cannot also give a prize named in honor of one the world’s worst abusers.