October 3, 2017 - Updated on October 9, 2017

Joint call by RSF and Article 19 : freedom of expression and information must be a major criteria when electing new UNESCO director-general

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Article 19 have sent a joint letter to the UNESCO Executive Board’s 58 Member States asking them to treat human rights and media freedom as priority issues when they elect a new UNESCO director-general in one month’s time. The independence of the candidates with regard to their country of origin and their commitment to defending journalists and combating impunity for violence against journalists are essential criteria in the choice of the new director-general, the joint letter said.

Freedom of expression and the selection of the UNESCO Director-General

ARTICLE 19 and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) call on the UNESCO Executive Board and General Conference to consider freedom of expression credentials when selecting a new Director-General of UNESCO, to replace Irina Bokova, who is due to step down in November 2017 after eight years in office.

The United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO), founded in 1945, is responsible for coordinating international cooperation in education, science, culture and communication. One of its main objectives is to promote the respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms. It also has a specific mandate to promote “the free flow of ideas by word and image; it works to foster free, independent and pluralistic media in print, broadcast and online.”

The UNESCO Director-General is elected every four years by the General Conference, upon the nomination of the Executive Board. According to the UNESCO Constitution, “the responsibilities of the Director-General and of the staff shall be exclusively international in character. In the discharge of their duties they shall not seek or receive instructions from any government or from any authority external to the Organization. They shall refrain from any action which might prejudice their positions as international officials.” (the conflict of interest provision). As such, the promise of financial contributions to individuals, institutions or States in return for supporting specific candidates is unacceptable, and will erode the standing of UNESCO and remove the appointee ability to execute their role in the manner described above.

The candidates for the post, nominated by Member states, should meet a number of qualifications, including demonstrated commitment over time to the objectives and purposes of UNESCO. ARTICLE 19 and RSF understand that the selection of the new Director General is a complex process and involves a careful assessment of various criteria.

However, given UNESCO’s specific mandate, we believe that the selected candidate should be independent, highly qualified, and should show a strong commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of the media. We therefore suggest that the Executive Board and the General Conference take the following issues into considerations.

  • Independence: we believe that the discharge of the Director General’s international duties requires candidates for the office to demonstrate their independence. At minimum, this requires independence of nominees from the executive of governments or from intergovernmental organisations, which may be the subject of a communication or mission within the terms of UNESCO’s mandate. The conflict of interest provision has also been interpreted to mean that nominees should clarify how, if appointed, they would deal with any perceived or actual conflict of interest in relation to governments, inter-governmental organisations, or non-governmental organisations.
  • Demonstrated commitment over time to freedom of expression and information: we believe that the Executive Board and the General Conference should consider the candidate's’ vision for continuing and strengthening UNESCO’s role in promoting freedom of expression and information, and media freedom, during their term as Director General. Candidates should demonstrate knowledge of the role of other United Nations entities andor other international andor regional organisations in promoting and protecting freedom of expression and information and media freedom. The candidates should also have practical experience relevant to promoting and protecting the right to freedom of expression and information, particularly in the context of digital technologies, and knowledge of the applicable international human rights standards. They should also have knowledge of developments and challenges in the field of the right to freedom of expression and information, in particular how digital technologies impact freedom of expression and information globally.

We also suggest that the candidates should have experience in interacting with a broad range of stakeholders whose work directly impact on the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and information, including working within and coordinating action between international and regional inter-governmental organisations,as well as, at the national level, all branches of government, including legislators, the judiciary, ministers, and civil servants, law enforcement agencies, relevant regulatory or administrative bodies, including, where applicable, media regulatory authorities and information ombudspersons, national human rights institutions and equality bodies, and corporations and business enterprises, particularly in the mass media, telecommunication, ICT, surveillance, and online-security sectors. Importantly they should have experience and proven commitment to working and/or interacting with individuals, groups and civil society whose right to freedom of expression and information may have been violated or restricted.

Promoting the safety of journalists and combating impunity for those who attack them are central elements within UNESCO's support for press freedom on all media platforms. Hence, we believe that the candidates should have proven awareness of the particular challenges and risks faced by journalists, media works and other individuals targeted for their exercise of the right to freedom of expression.

ARTICLE 19 and, RSF hope that these considerations will contribute to the decision-making of the Executive Board and the General Conference.

Commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of media is crucial to ensure that any individual appointed is ready to meet the mounting global challenges to the right to freedom of expression and freedom of media in the coming years.

We also remind candidates and Member States that any practices to undermine the election process, including considering any criteria not relevant to the ability of any candidate to deliver UNESCO’s mandate, would gravely damage the credibility of the institution.