UNESCO: Palestine – in, Freedom of Speech – out
Nov 15, 2011 | Or Avi Guy
Eric Falt, assistant director general for external relations and public information at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), has issued an official letter of protest from UNESCO’s director general, Irina Bokova regarding a cartoon which UNESCO claimed constituted incitement.
This could have been an encouraging sign that UNESCO is finally acting against incitement, racism and specifically antisemitism prevalent in Arab and Muslim media, especially in the state-sponsored press. However, the cartoon that so inflamed UNESCO officials was published in Haaretz, an Israeli independent newspaper, which is protected under Israel’s laws regarding freedom of the press. Moreover, the only incitement that seemed to concern UNESCO is incitement against UNESCO.
The cartoon (published on November 4) clearly was meant to satirise, not UNESCO, but the Israeli government’s anger at the acceptance of the Palestinian Authority as a full member of UNESCO. It depicted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak sending an air force squadron to attack Iran, with Netanyahu ordering, “And on your way back, you’re gonna hit the UNESCO office in Ramallah!”
Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Nimrod Barkan, was called in by Falt in order to “tell him off” and hand him the letter of protest. In the meeting, Falt told Barkan that “A cartoon like this endangers the lives of unarmed diplomats, and you have an obligation to protect them… We understand that there is freedom of the press in Israel, but the government must prevent attacks on UNESCO.”
It seems that UNESCO senior officials not only lack a sense of satire, but also do not fully understand the meaning of freedom of speech or the press, contrary to what Falt might say. otherwise they would not have urged government intervention in the publications of an independent media outlet, nor that UNESCO be essentially protected from criticism. As ambassador Barkan explained, the Israeli government has no control over editorial cartoons. He added a little satirical barb of his own when he replied to Falt “Ask yourselves what you did to make a moderate paper with a deeply internationalist bent publish such a cartoon. Perhaps the problem is with you.”
The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs was also baffled by the surprising letter of protest, and their response to Barkan stated: “What exactly does UNESCO want of us – to send our fine boys to protect UNESCO’s staff, or to shut down the paper? It seems your work environment is getting more and more reminiscent of ‘Animal Farm.'”
UNESCO’s reaction to the cartoon is both ironic and disturbing, since UNESCO’s mandate includes protection of freedom of speech. Even worse, it is also hypocritical and inconsistent, considering all the times UNESCO, along with other UN agencies such as UN Human Rights Council, remained silent when presented with racist caricatures published in the state-controlled press of countries such as Jordan, Syria, Qatar and Oman – some depicting the UN itself as controlled by nefarious Jewish forces.