Democracy, hypocrisy and the shady prize

2011-10-15 09:49

Democracy is complex, as Archbishop Emeritus ­Desmond Tutu and former US secretary of state Madeleine ­Albright reminded us during a conversation at a summit on human rights at the Ford Foundation.

Having spent the last 40-odd years of my professional life reporting on democracies, I couldn’t agree more.But my years of reporting across the world also led me to agree with their point that to harness that complexity in a way that allows citizens to benefit most from the system, those citizens have to be vigilant and engaged.

I am moved to these thoughts as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) considers implementing the Obiang International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences, which was suspended indefinitely in June last year and is funded by a $3-million (about R23.5?million) gift from the president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, after whom it is named.

The prize and its revival is a controversial move, ­condemned by many human rights organisations, as well as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). And some, like the CPJ, see it as a case study in the dilemma of how good organisations deal with receiving money for a good cause, but for the wrong reasons.

It happens all the time – some ­leaders promote good causes abroad while engaged in dubious, if not heinous, practices at home. ­Political hypocrisy is, alas, a global phenomenon.

Obiang, who has served for more than three decades, has done more than his share to thwart freedom of expression by cowing the local press into self-censorship, thereby preventing any probing coverage of ongoing international investigations of the ruling elite over alleged corruption.

While Obiang proclaimed in August that “there are no human rights violations” in his country, the CPJ reported six days later that authorities detained a German television crew and deleted footage of their interview with an opposition leader and images showing poverty.

The UN special rapporteur on ­torture has documented the systematic use of torture in Equatorial Guinea’s prisons. Meanwhile, ­ongoing arrests, intimidation and obstruction of journalists, most of whom as a matter of survival practice self-censorship, make the country one of the world’s most censored nations, according to CPJ research.

Virtually all of the news media in the country are owned and run by the government or its allies.Of course, there are always other views, and Obiang has denied any of the abuses he’s been accused of. He has garnered the support of some African heads of state and of the African Union (AU), where he’s a rotating chairperson.

In August, five central African countries agreed to back Equatorial Guinea for a two-year seat on the Unesco executive board. The revival of the prize follows an AU resolution calling for its immediate implementation.Many human rights groups are alarmed by the imminent implementation of a prize that will help burnish the legacy of Obiang.

That is a legacy which, those organisations argue, belies the reality of a leader whose record on human rights and freedom of speech is blemished beyond burnishing.

It is laudable to have a prize recognizing research in life sciences, but what, if any name, should it carry? Is it not essential that a prize be in keeping with the values and actions of the prize sponsors, in this case both President Obiang and UNESCO?

The CPJ and other organisations believe bestowing the Obiang Prize would not only send the wrong signal to those struggling to harness the complexity of democracy, but would also undermine Unesco’s credibility and cast a blight on the entire UN system.

For those who believe that even a system as complex as democracy offers the opportunity for citizens to speak freely and to live in freedom and dignity, the Obiang case offers an opportunity to stand up and use that freedom to write a chapter of the history of our time that their children can be proud of.

On October 5 Unesco’s executive board blocked a move to reinstate the prize immediately. The issue is now due to be decided at the board’s next meeting next year.

Despite the “baby steps to democracy” being taken by many African countries, it is still the case that in far too many of the continent’s countries, citizens are being deprived of the capacity to harness the complexities of democracy through their own engagement because their leaders have themselves harnessed the instruments that would allow their people the freedom to know “what’s goin’ on”—to know their rights and obligations as citizens.

Moreover, there are still countries in the world—and not just in Africa- where there is kleptocratic rule, human rights abuses and an ongoing obstruction of one of the basic instrument of a free society--freedom of the press --stifled, often in the most cruel ways.

And in such societies, despots are able to manipulate their systems to remain in power in perpetuity.Even in countries like the United States, democracy is complex, and where the former Zimbabwean Freedom fighter and opposition politician Margaret Dongo rightly observes: “The US is still growing into its constitution.”

But one of the many things going for its people is a free press, albeit one that is also complex, as news organizations struggle to define themselves and their role in new and uncertain times.

And this is all the more reason that people who are privileged with access to independent information need to use it to benefit not only themselves, but their neighbors around the world.

The hope for those of us who believe in the promise of democracy and use journalism to help fulfill that right, is that the press can give voice to those whose right to speak out is denied them.

The hope is also that those who have the precious right of freedom will stand up when the history that they are creating for future generations is in danger of being written in a way that will reflect poorly on their commitment to freedom, justice, human rights and human dignity.

Hunter-Gault, a freelance journalist and author, writes in her capacity as a board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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