Irina Bokova, UNESCO's director-general, delivered a firm message on Tuesday to representatives from UNESCO's 58-member executive board assembled at the organization's Paris headquarters: Bestowing the Obiang International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences, named for and financed by one of the most repressive leaders in Africa, would do grave damage to the organization.
"I have heard the voices of the many intellectuals,
scientists, journalists, and, of course, governments and parliamentarians
who have appealed to me to protect and preserve the prestige of
the organization," Bokova said. "I have come to you with a
strong message of alarm and anxiety."
The issue of the Obiang prize has been deeply divisive, with
the Africa bloc of UNESCO standing firm with President Teodoro Obiang Nguema
Mbasogo, the authoritarian and corrupt leader of Equatorial
Guinea, despite criticism from France,
the EU, and the United
States. But the protests from press freedom
organizations, UNESCO/Cano World Press Freedom Prize laureates, and, finally, South Africa's
Bishop Desmond Tutu seemed to tip the balance. Realizing that the very
credibility of UNESCO was at stake, members of the executive board accepted
Bokova's call for further consultations prior to their next meeting in October.
This is diplospeak for "you have three months to come up with a face-saving way
of out of this mess."
While Bokova's spokeswoman Sue Williams told The Washington Times, "Nobody is talking
about scrapping the prize at this point," the reality is that there is no
scenario in which UNESCO can ever award the prize and retain its credibility.
The level of international outrage is just too high.
I happened to be in Paris
on Monday and Tuesday before the executive board meeting and had an opportunity
to speak with senior officials and diplomats within the organization. What was
clear to me is that the letters from press freedom organizations and Cano
prize laureates were instrumental in helping to make the case against the
prize. The fact the five leading African press freedom organization--the
Ethiopian Free Press Journalists' Association, Journaliste en Danger, the Media
Foundation for West Africa, the Media Institute of Southern Africa, and
the National Union of Somali Journalists--all signed the letter to
Bokova was duly noted.
Defenders of press freedom owe a debt of gratitude to the
Cano laureates who signed on. They are: Cheng Yizhong; Geoffrey Nyarota; Lydia
Cacho; Moníca González; Nizar Nayyouf; Raúl
Rivero; and Sonali
Samarasinghe Wickrematunge, who signed on behalf of her husband Lasantha, who
was murdered in Sri Lanka.
To that list I would like to add the heroic Lebanese
journalist May Chidiac, whose endorsement arrived too late for us to include
with the original appeal. The fight, however, is far from over, and will be
calling on you again between now and October, when the final fate of the Obiang
prize is expected to be decided.