23 June 2010

UNESCO "dictator prize" on hold

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has been poised for months to award a life sciences prize named after and funded by President Teodoro Obiang, the abusive ruler of Equatorial Guinea. On 15 June, UNESCO delayed awarding the controversial prize, but rights groups such as Human Rights Watch say that's not enough. Meanwhile, opposition to the prize has grown more vociferous - including statements from journalists worldwide who have been repressed by their own governments.

About 270 organisations all over the globe have campaigned against the UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences - a $3 million grant provided by Obiang - calling for the award to be cancelled completely. The next meeting of the governing board is scheduled for October. The funds behind the prize should be used to promote basic education and other needs for Equatorial Guinea's people, say rights groups.

The prize was created in 2008 to recognise "scientific achievements that improve the quality of human life." But 75 percent of Equatoguineans live in abysmal poverty in sub-Saharan Africa's fourth largest oil producer. The government is known for its use of unfair trials, arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions and systematic torture - as well as vast official corruption that squanders funds. Rights groups are outraged that UNESCO would accept money from this source, says Human Rights Watch.

Seven recipients of UNESCO's most prestigious award, the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom prize given to courageous journalists, sent a letter to the organisation's director-general expressing opposition to the prize. The Cano laureates cited in particular "the severe repression in Equatorial Guinea" and that Obiang "oppresses the media."

Under Obiang's iron grip, the press is almost totally controlled by the state, say 30 IFEX members in a letter sent in May to UNESCO. Local journalists working for international media outlets have been targeted with detention or imprisonment. State journalists who express "even a modicum of objectivity" have been dismissed from their jobs.

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