U.S. Appears Ready to Rejoin UNESCO: Left the Organization in 1984 in Opposition to Its Proposed Curtailment of Press Freedom

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IT APPEARS ALMOST a certainty that the U.S. will rejoin UNESCO, the United Nations organization it left in 1984 in opposition to its management practices and proposed curtailment of press freedom.

E&P interviews with UNESCO representatives at its Paris headquarters, a State Department official, a key congressman, and the executive director of the U.S.-based World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC) indicated that American officials feel the time is ripe for the United States to return to the fold. A target date is set for October 1995 but a White House announcement is expected in the next few weeks.

First, however, President Bill Clinton must approve the move and Congress in a budget-tight year, must vote the estimated $65 million U.S. yearly contribution to UNESCO's operating expenses.

In 1984, the United States was paying $47 million a year toward UNESCO's budget. The United States and Great Britain, which also dropped its membership, accounted for a third of the world body's income.

The U.S. withdrawal followed years of Western news media complaints about the press attitudes of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), particularly its emphasis on a vaguely defined New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO).

Among NWICO's aims, as put forth by the then-Soviet Union and a number of Third World countries, was to end the world media's dependence on the so-called "Big Four" wire agencies, AP, Reuters, Agence France-Presse and UPI. Also, many underdeveloped countries, making up some 74 UNESCO members, stressed the need for "development journalism" in which the press acts as a cheerleader for the nation's development goals and gives up its freedom-of-information aspirations.

In some cases, the Third World countries expected foreign correspondents also to adhere to this line. In addition, much of the UNESCO rhetoric called for the elimination of advertising in the media and a pledge by journalists that they will act "responsibly" in reporting the news.

"NWICO is dead," C.L. Sharma, UNESCO's deputy director general, told E&P. He said it died in 1989, when, at the urging of UNESCO Director General Frederico Mayor, its congress voted it out of existence.

Sharma, a native of India, was echoing an assurance Mayor gave in a 1992 speech in the United States in which he said UNESCO is devoted to ensuring the free flow of information "at national and international levels to ensure wider and better balanced dissemination without any obstacle to freedom of expression, and to strengthen communication capacities in developing countries...."

UNESCO already has taken such steps, Sharma asserted.

"Who is providing newsprint for a paper in Sarajevo?" he asked rhetorically. "Who is running a journalism school in Warsaw? Who is operating press projects all through the former Soviet Union and in Africa? UNESCO is doing these things today."

In its proposed 1994-1995 budget, UNESCO has allocated over $35 million "to promote the free flow of information at international and national levels, press freedom and independent pluralistic media ... without any obstacle to freedom of expression. Specifically, the money would cover such projects as enhancing the capacity of Tanzania's information services, the development of West Africa and Central Africa news agencies, setting up 15 pilot projects for community radio stations in worst off regions and holding a series of seminars on media independence and pluralism."

Sharma conceded that some member developing countries still have repressive press practices.

"Different countries have different stages of development," he said.

Thomas R. Forstenzer, a former Rutgers University history professor, who is executive director of Mayor's cabinet [Sharma said that despite the U.S. departure, a number of Americans work in UNESCO administration], added: "A free press is only part of the democratic picture. You can't imagine a free press without lawyers and in Eastern Europe there are no lawyers who know how to argue a press freedom case."

For this reason, he continued, UNESCO is not only working on media projects but also is training lawyers and combating illiteracy.

"You can't have a free press without consumers so literacy is very important," he said.

Alain Modoux, a Swiss who is UNESCO's director of communications, said the circumstances which prompted the U.S. breakaway from the organization have "totally changed."

"The changes are taking place in Africa and other developing countries, which are being opened to journalists," he said. "Of course, an independent local press is another matter. How much independence can you have, even in your country?"

Still, Modoux said, in parts of Africa and Latin America, newspapers are managing to be independent of government.

Sharma contended that UNESCO also serves developed countries by such projects as its fight against drug use.

"There is a misconception that UNESCO is only for developing countries", he said.

According to Sharma, UNESCO has not only cleaned up its press act but has largely erased alleged problems of mismanagement, inefficiency, corruption and budget control identified by the United States and Britain under the previous director general, Amadou Mahtar M'Bow.

He said the U.S. General Accounting Office, after examining the organization, reported that UNESCO had made "excellent progress" in improving eight of 12 areas cited by critics.

"It was very complimentary report," Sharma said. "We're very hopeful and optimistic that the United States will return this year but this is a decision for the U.S. government to make."

He said he hoped that a favorable U.S. decision comes before UNESCO's General Assembly meeting in Paris in November, when its annual budget review takes place.

"There is a feeling here that it's going to happen," a State Department official told E&P. The individual, who spoke on a non-attribution basis, said "there is obviously good improvement" in press freedom issues but he cautioned that the White House and Congress also will consider UNESCO's management and financial practices.

Earlier, it was announced that a Clinton administration task force has recommended the U.S. revive its UNESCO membership. Assistant Secretary of State Douglas Bennet, who headed the task force, told the Los Angeles Times that the recommendation proposed October 1995 as the date for rejoining. However, Bennet stressed that UNESCO's eschewing of its controversial practices was "not enough to justify going back."

More significant, he explained, was the conviction of the task force that UNESCO is involved in fields in which the United States has an interest.

Dana Bullen, executive director of the World Press Freedom Committee, told E&P he had attended "at least one State Department meeting" in which the signs for U.S. re-entry into UNESCO seemed promising.

"In our field, things are going the right way now," Bullen stated. "UNESCO has changed from threatening press freedom to active support for free and independent news media. We're delighted with this new orientation. They have become a welcome partner in efforts to promote and strengthen press freedom. This should be recognized by anyone considering rejoining the organization."

California Congressman Howard Berman, who chairs the Operations Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he has been pushing for U.S. re-entry into UNESCO and is ready to back his position up with an appropriations bill.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee submits a recommended budget for State Department expenditures, which would include funding authorization for UNESCO.

Berman said he had been prepared to insert a UNESCO appropriation for 1994 until the State Department task force set the 1995 date for rejoining.

He hesitated when asked if he thought the full Congress would approve the UNESCO expenditure, saying, "I don't think many in Congress are aware of the changes that have been made in UNESCO, but I believe we can make a very good case for the appropriation."

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