Editor's Note: Following is a condensed version of Amir Taheri's remarks as part of a special panel of diplomats and academics, addressing journalists at the Palace of the Nations, the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, on June 22, under the auspices of UNESCO's liaison office.
The panel took place as part of the UN's 32nd session on human rights, and in response to UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon's special report on "violent extremism."
Mr. Taheri spoke on the question of: "Should the United Nations play a role in countering hate speech and expressions of 'violent extremism' and 'Islamophobia' in the media?"
Since I haven't prepared a written speech, permit me to offer an unadorned response to the various plans exposed here. I believe many in our profession might share my sentiments.
The plans evoked here contain a number of words with military tonalities that set alarm bells ringing in my head. Here are some: combat, campaign, plan of action, order, discipline, protection etc.
Then there are phrases that either mean different things to different people or their meaning is cancelled by their component parts. For example: violent extremism, which implies that you could be violent without being extremist or be extremist without being violent, but does not tell us in what dosage of its ingredients it would operate as a concept.
Here is another phrase: the "right balance," which the Secretary-general insists we must establish in the media. Is there a wrong balance?
Or do we mean a faux balance, like "five minutes for Hitler, five minutes for the Jews?"
There is also talk of stopping "hate speech".
But hate, like love, is hard to define and the UN has offered no definition of it. Thus anyone could use it as an excuse for "stopping" or restricting freedom of expression.
In this room, I feel haunted by the ghosts of the 1970s and 1980s, when an alliance of the Soviet bloc and Third World powers tried to use UNESCO as a vehicle for imposing control on the media across the globe. I was always deeply suspicious of international organizations trying to legislate a one-size-fits-all scheme to regulate freedom of expression.
In those bad old days, the move in that direction was called The New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO), a brainchild of the Soviet bloc in the context of the Cold War. The architects of that scheme proposed to issue UNESCO media permits for journalists across the globe, and impose rules binding on all member states. In other words, they wanted to fence us in by pretending they were protecting us.
The efforts of undertaken the IPI (International Press Institute) and other groups dedicated to press freedom led to the total defeat of NWICO and a major victory for freedom of expression throughout the world.
Today, anyone trying to revive that monster would be laughed out of the room. Nevertheless, we have to remain vigilant against any attempt at media control via the UN or UNESCO.
A majority of the members of the UN and the UNESCO, which is part of it, are states that cannot be regarded as lovers of press freedom, to say the least.
To ask them to regulate the media with the pretext of controlling "hate speech" and preventing "Islamophobia" is to give them license to intensify their system of censorship.
For decades, the UN has not succeeded to define "peace" or "terrorism" and would not be able to define the word "hate" either, and thus cannot pretend to regulate the media in the name of "combating hate speech." The most the UN or UNESCO can do is to create a new bureaucracy, for example The Office of Combating Hate Speech and Islamophobia (UNOCHSI). Then we will have one of the despots who head a majority of UN members propel a nephew into the post of UNOCHSI Director, while fellow despots across the globe use the "guidelines" set by it to intensify media censorship under the auspices of the mythical international community.
At a time that freedom of expression is under attack by a variety of groups from all parts of the political spectrum, the last thing we should wish for is a UN stamp of approval for censorship in any form. What we need is a free flow of information that cannot be subjected to bureaucratic rules and regulations. Unlike despotism, which is brutally "clean", freedom is always a bit messy, the rough coming with the smooth, and thus difficult to control.
As for "combating Islamophobia", those who unfurl that banner ignore the fact that it could mean creating a special category for Islam to shield it against any form of criticism, precisely at a time that Islam could benefit from serious critical scrutiny.
The Secretary-General's plan has a romantic tone inasmuch as it aims at managing freedom of speech in a way that no one is ever offended and no pen is ever dipped in a poison ink. Freedom, however, is not romantic; it is the fruit of a prosaic approach to existential reality, which takes into account our imperfections as fallible human beings.
The UN and UNESCO would do well to mind their own business. If they wish to be useful, they should provide space and opportunity and resources to those -- that is to say a majority of mankind at present -- who cannot exercise their right to freedom of expression. They could give a voice to the voiceless. They should ask their member states not to imprison so many journalists or, maybe, even create an annual Index of Press Freedom to expose and oppose regimes that use silence and terror as instruments of government.
Two facts encourage me in thinking that this meeting is not going to endorse any plan for reviving the demon of NWICO under a new mask. The first is that Finland is a co-sponsor of the session. And we have not forgotten that Finland, along within other Nordic countries and Great Britain, was the most steadfast supporter of our cause of press freedom against the threat of NWICO more than two decades ago.
The second is that the session is also co-sponsored by Elaph, the oldest Arabic language website newspaper, now blowing 15 candles, and a champion of freedom of expression in a dark region of the world. Any talk of regulating freedom of speech puts us on a slippery slope that could lead to censorship, curtailing freedom of expression -- which is a basic human right. My message to you on behalf of journalists everywhere is simple: Don't try to fence us in!
Amir Taheri, formerly editor of Iran's premier newspaper, Kayhan, before the Iranian revolution of 1979, is a prominent author based on Europe. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.