Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Friday, June 6, 2008
An international newspaper industry conference, meeting in Sweden this week, passed a resolution saying that the council's "role is to defend freedom of expression and not to support the censorship of opinion at the request of autocracies."
The criticism by the World Association of Newspapers (WAM) board, representing 18,000 newspapers, focused on a measure passed by the Human Rights Council in late March.
The Geneva-based council was considering the work of a special rapporteur (investigator-reporter) whose role has focused on the restrictions some governments have placed on free expression.
Pakistan, on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), introduced a resolution amending the rapporteur's mandate, so that he is now required to investigate and report on cases "in which the abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination."
The resolution, which passed with the support of 32 of the council's 47 members, was the latest bid by Islamic states to prevent a recurrence of incidents such as the publication of newspaper cartoons depicting Mohammed, and the release of a documentary film linking the Koran to terrorism.
Muslim critics argue that those responsible -- and the governments that defend them -- are abusing the right of free expression to offend the religious rights of others.
The OIC wields considerable influence at the Human Rights Council, because more than half of its seats are earmarked for the African and Asian regional groups, home to most Islamic states.
The WAM resolution, passed at the 61st World Newspaper Congress in Goteborg, urged the U.N. to ensure that international standards of free expression were upheld, and not undermined, by the council.
It expressed concern about "what appears to be the emergence of a negative trend against freedom of expression" in the council, noting an earlier resolution - also introduced by Pakistan for the OIC - on the "defamation of religion."
That resolution, which cited only Islam by name, passed in March 2007 by a 24-14 vote, with nine abstentions.
The Human Rights Council was established in 2006 to replace the 60-year-old U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which was discredited by the presence and conduct of rights-abusing countries
Many of the Islamic states in the council - and some non-Islamic allies like China, Russia and Cuba - have some of the world's poorest records on freedom of expression and the press, according to assessments by the U.S. State Department and human rights watchdogs.
In the two years that the council has been operating, 214 journalists have been killed around the world, according to a Geneva-based non-governmental organization, the Press Emblem Campaign. Of the six countries with the highest number of journalist deaths this year, four -- Mexico, Pakistan, Russia and India -- are members of the Human Rights Council. The other two are Iraq and Colombia.
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