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

By Stein, M. L. | Editor & Publisher, September 11, 1993 | Go to article overview

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


Stein, M. L., Editor & Publisher


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. …

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