Diplomats divert from issues at UNESCO symposium

UNESCO’s International Symposium on Freedom of Expression at the world culture organization’s Paris headquarters January 26 brought together a wide range of experts to construct a full picture of the state of freedom of expression in the world today. Not everyone in the audience liked what they heard. 

Presenters–including myself–told a group of some 200 government officials, policymakers, representatives of major non-governmental organizations, scholars, and media professionals about the bleak picture across the globe, highlighting threats to freedom of expression in the digital age; the extreme violence facing journalists in Latin America and across the world as rates of unsolved journalists’ murders remain unabated; and new laws and regulations restricting the media’s ability to report without fear of imprisonment or crippling legal retaliation. The arguments sparked vehement reactions from several ambassadors and other representatives of UNESCO member states, particularly those nations where journalists have been frequently imprisoned, attacked, or censored.

For all their protestations, little refutation took place. Instead, reactions were cloaked in allegations of sermonizing and protocol questions. The permanent delegate of Sri Lanka to UNESCO, Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka, accused groups of sitting as “judge, jury, and executioner” and setting up a North-South “moral food chain.” Speakers from China, Cuba, Venezuela, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Cameroon, and several other states also raised similar questions and suggested such stances are not appropriate to adopt at intergovernmental organizations like UNESCO or that ambassadors from members states should not be addressed as they had been at the symposium. Not one dealt with the content, based on stark facts, on the table at the symposium.

It can expected that diplomats will defend or dispute criticism against the practices of the governments they represent and the conditions the authorities in that country have fostered. But it is a shame responses were confined to the superficial, diversionary, and obtuse.  Wouldn’t it be nice if the concerns raised by organizations, scholars, all speaking from either firsthand experience or careful research, were genuinely debated and if rebutted or rationalized, done so with thought and interest? Perhaps that is naïve, but many participants I spoke with, several more experienced than I in attending international governmental forums, were also taken aback and disheartened by the seemingly impenetrable barriers made clear by some the comments.

Having worked for CPJ for nearly 10 years, I am very familiar with many of the speakers’ work and the issues slated for discussion. Walking into the symposium I worried that our messages, though always current and dire might be starting to lose freshness. I walked out feeling we cannot reiterate our apprehensions and findings enough. Thick walls take constant hammering to crack.

(Reporting from Paris)