Why the US' UNESCO withdrawal is a slight to freedom of the press

While the UN agency is best known for protecting World Heritage sites, it also promotes freedom of expression. Stephanie MacLellan looks at what the US withdrawal means for those efforts.

By: /
October 18, 2017
UNESCO
A general view of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquarters is seen at dusk in Paris, France, October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

The United States’ decision late last week to quit UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural and education agency, was met with consternation, if not surprise.

The US stopped funding UNESCO in 2011, after the group admitted Palestine as a member, and some of its voting rights were suspended in 2013. Then last week, on October 12, it announced it would withdraw from UNESCO by the end of 2018, citing the organization’s “anti-Israel bias” as its official reason, and instead establish an observer mission — a decision that was reportedly in the works for several weeks.

Whether the decision will have much practical effect remains to be seen. But it is yet another signal of the Trump administration’s active disinterest in press freedom.

That’s because, in addition to well-known initiatives like designating World Heritage sites, UNESCO is the UN body responsible for protecting and promoting freedom of expression around the world: it “works to foster free, independent and pluralistic media in print, broadcast and online.” It promotes and funds media development in developing countries and trains journalists in these countries on covering topics like gender-based violence and human rights. It tracks the killings of journalists and campaigns for prosecutions in their deaths, instead of the impunity that so often follows.

And, increasingly, it researches the complicated questions that arise when freedom of expression and journalism collide with the internet.

UNESCO has gathered expertise and offered recommendations on countering “fake news,” or as its director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Guy Berger, calls it, the “weaponization of mistrust.”

Late last year, it issued a comprehensive report on the implications of encryption on human rights. It has also produced research and guidance on online hate speech, including its particular effects on women and marginalized groups.

The US decision to withdraw from UNESCO — a move followed hours later by Israel — has concerned free-speech advocates, especially considering that it came on the heels of another round of comments from President Donald Trump targeting press freedom

"It’s troubling that this comes as the American political conversation is seized with questions of 'fake news.'"

A joint statement by advocacy groups Article 19, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the move was “indicative of a significant shift in the administration away from championing freedom of expression worldwide,” and it could have serious consequences.

“UNESCO plays a critical role in promoting the safety of journalists around the world and U.S. withdrawal will weaken UNESCO's ability to address global press freedom violations, creating a power vacuum that could very well be filled by governments that embrace authoritarian tactics,” said Courtney Radsch of CPJ.

It’s also troubling that this withdrawal comes as the American political conversation is seized with questions of “fake news” and the manipulation of social media platforms, as the investigations into foreign interference in last year’s presidential election continue. The US, more than any other state, should want to promote an agency that works to address these questions.

Notwithstanding its stated concerns about Israel, the US could have stayed the course, or worked with UNESCO to find another solution, in order to keep its member status, so that it could more strongly demonstrate its commitment to freedom of expression and the other important values UNESCO promotes. It could have used its clout as a UNESCO member to advocate within the organization for press freedom and media development.

Instead, Trump seems content to disparage legitimate journalists as “fake news” while turning his back on an organization that is fighting the dangers of disinformation. He turns a blind eye to white supremacist rhetoric that proliferates online, while abandoning an organization that studies how to best counter online hatred.

UNESCO needs all the support it can get to keep promoting human rights and freedom of expression in the digital sphere. The US has shown it can no longer be counted on for its support.