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The Western precedent
Freedom of expression denied



Rostam Pourzal
February 24, 2006

The Muslim uproar against the publication of offensive cartoons has elicited calls from respectable Western opinion to defend freedom of the press. Empathetic voices here have gone further and suggested that Muslims should concentrate on educating Christians and others about their culture, rather than retaliate.

This kind of well-intentioned reaction ignores the history of non-Western nations' frustrated campaign for freedom of information and the right to communicate on a global scale. During the 1970s, newly independent nations known as the non-aligned movement, supported by the Soviet Union, demanded some control over Western media's access to their populace. Failing that, they sought a right, to be recognized at the United Nations, for equal access to Western audiences, not unlike the parity the developing nations now seek in trade arrangements.

The campaign was ferociously opposed by Western corporate media and governments, who falsely framed it as a communist-inspired effort to stifle freedom of the press. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization came under attack for a report it commissioned in this regard, advocating actually nothing but comprehensive freedom of information.

The United States and Great Britain left UNESCO angrily, charging that the organization was mismanaged and politicized, taking with them almost a third of its budget. Other Western governments threatened to follow suit, UNESCO caved in, and precedent was set for today's retaliation by the Muslim world. Sean McBride, who headed UNESCO's offending International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, had previously won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1974.

What conservative and liberal circles hailed at the time as a victory for "our values" was in fact a subversion, dressed in Cold War terms, of global media democracy. Today few observers doubt that most Muslims, devout or secular, feel humiliated by double standards prevailing in the New World Order.

The back-to-back rise of popularly elected governments opposed to one-way globalization in Iraq, Palestine, and Iran, as well as in Venezuela and Bolivia, is indicative of a growing fervor in held-back countries for authenticity and the right to be heard. The posturing of political leaders aside, what we are witnessing in the form of a cartoon war is the end of Muslim tolerance in the face of neocolonial disparities and cultural hegemony.

Having faced a united Western media-government front at UNESCO and other forums, nations yearning to be heard can hardly be blamed for seeing the "free" press of NATO countries as an extension of big power hegemony. A declassified Nixon-era internal memo, published last week in an Iranian daily, further illustrates why Muslim public opinion does not buy Western claims of press autonomy. Nixon's top aides, seizing an opportunity to calm the US public about Vietnam, had this exchange in the memo to H.R. Haldeman from Dwight L. Chapin on October 19, 1969:

The worldly interests and understanding of the President came out very clearly in the Shah's remarks today. He had some things to say about the President which we should work with. For example,

- Friendly columnists should be called today – and given excerpts of the Shah's remarks about the President. The interpretation along the lines of how good it is that America finally has a president who has studied the world for twenty years and understands it... shouldn't a president like this be given an opportunity regarding Vietnam ?

- The Monday Republican flyer should carry the picture of the Shah and the President – with a portion of the Shah's remarks quoted on the cover.

- Eric Severeid should be called by Shakespeare or perhaps by Klein – and try to get the thrust of the Shah's remarks
into his show for tonight.

Severeid was the CBS evening news anchor at the time. Accompanying declassified documents published in Iran -- correspondence between the State Department and US embassies in Middle East capitals – leave little doubt that American media freely spread propaganda for US administrations. Muslims also remember how Venezuela's and Serbia's "free" media conspired more recently with Washington to destabilize the legitimately elected governments of those countries. More to the point, they are reminded daily by Muslim defenders of press freedom how Aljazeera TV has repeatedly been threatened and harassed – and its reporters targeted and killed -- by US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq for refusing to play by Washington's rules.

Progressive activists should focus on the glaring hypocrisy of our "defenders" of free press. And instead of wasting time on dissecting Islam for traces of enlightenment, we should revive UNESCO's defeated plan to democratize the flow of information – including cartoons -- worldwide. If Muslims get access to a level playing field in global communications, fewer will express themselves in south Asia's streets torch in hand.

Based in Washington, DC, Rostam Pourzal writes about the politics of human rights for Iranian expatriate journals.

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