20 May 2010

Joint action

Thirty IFEX members call on UNESCO to refuse funds from one of Africa's worst violators of press freedom, Equatorial Guinea

(CPJ/IFEX) - May 19, 2010 - Recalling UNESCO's stated commitment to free expression on World Press Freedom Day, 30 IFEX members call for the organisation not to accept a $3 million donation from President Teodoro Obiang for the administration of an international prize in life sciences:

Irina Bokova
Director-General of UNESCO
UNESCO Headquarters
7, place de Fontenoy
75352 Paris 07 SP

CC: The Executive Board of UNESCO

Dear Director-General Bokova,

We, the undersigned freedom of expression organizations, join with the Committee to Protect Journalists to express our grave concern regarding the US$3 million donation by Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang for the administration of an international prize in life sciences. As a leading institution that advocates "empowering people through the free flow of ideas and by access to information and knowledge," UNESCO should not accept funds from one of Africa's worst violators of press freedom.

Under Obiang, the local press is almost totally controlled by the state. The few brave local journalists working for international media outlets have been targeted by Obiang's regime. Samuel Obiang Mbana, a correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP) was detained for hours by police last month at Malabo airport, where he had gone to cover the arrival of heads of state for a regional economic conference, local journalists told CPJ. Mbana's predecessor, former AFP reporter Rodrigo Angue Nguema, was imprisoned for four months in Malabo's Black Beach prison last year in a defamation case. Nguema was the sole foreign correspondent in Malabo, according to local reports.

If state media journalists in Equatorial Guinea demonstrate even a modicum of objectivity they are silenced by authorities. In January, Deputy Information Minister Purita Opo Barila dismissed four journalists from the state radio and TV broadcaster, RTVGE, for "insubordination" and "lack of enthusiasm" - journalists told CPJ that the real reason may have been that the reporters did not cover the government's "merits" enough. In February, authorities detained RTVGE journalist Pedro Luis Esono for three days in the coastal city of Bata with no charges brought after Esono did an unwelcome live broadcast on the discovery of seven bodies at the city's dumps.

In November 2009, President Obiang won "95.4 percent of the votes" thanks in part to the state radio and television's biased coverage. According to local reports, opposition candidates were barely mentioned and RTVGE openly campaigned for Obiang. Journalists have no outlet to complain about this since no union or private press organization exists in the country. Media regulation is conducted by the information ministry, whose staff all belong to the ruling party.

With Obiang's iron grip on the media, the world will never learn how much Equatorial Guinea's oil wealth is siphoned off by the ruling elite. While the country's oil wealth has placed its GDP on par with Italy and Spain, the bulk of the population lives below the poverty line, the International Monetary Fund has reported.

At a World Press Freedom Day ceremony this year in Brisbane, Australia, you pointed out that people are hampered in their everyday affairs if they do not have access to information. Further, in your keynote speech, you denounced the fact that "countless journalists all over the world continue to endure harassment, intimidation, or physical assault in the course of defending our right to know."

If UNESCO administers this prize, your words on World Press Freedom Day will ring hollow. Not only that, but the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, which honors "a person, organization or institution that has made a notable contribution to the defense and/or promotion of press freedom anywhere in the world, especially if this involved risk," will be undermined if were bestowed by an organization that accepted money from a regime that oppresses the media.

You have noted that the Obiang prize was approved by UNESCO's executive board and as director-general you are bound by their decisions. However, we believe that that implementation of this prize will do grave damage to UNESCO's credibility as an organization that promotes freedom of expression. It will also do serious harm to your reputation as someone who has demonstrated a strong commitment to the principles of freedom of expression. We urge you to make this case directly to the members of the executive board that it must reverse this decision; we commit to doing the same.


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