UNESCO vote hit by row over Egyptian candidate

Thu Sep 17, 2009 8:27am EDT
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By Sophie Hardach

PARIS (Reuters) - A political storm with accusations of anti-Semitism and censorship stirred up UNESCO's election of a new director-general on Thursday, centering on one of the top candidate's comment that he would burn Israeli books.

Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni's bid for the United Nations culture agency's top post has drawn fire from French intellectuals and Jewish organizations, who were joined by press freedom activists before the first round of voting on Thursday.

Hosni apologized for the comment made last year earlier this year, and some prominent activists such as French Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld said they accept his regrets and support him.

But other activists have since piled into the row, accusing Hosni of colluding in censorship and violation of press freedom in Egypt, and pressuring UNESCO members not to vote for him.

"Let's burn these books; if there are any, I will burn them myself before you," Hosni was quoted as telling a member of parliament who had confronted him about the presence of Israeli books in Egyptian libraries last year.

"Hosni is culture minister in a country that doesn't respect freedom of speech, especially freedom of speech on the Internet," Jean-Francois Julliard, secretary-general of media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, told Reuters on Thursday.

"It's difficult to see someone like that as head of UNESCO."

The minister met Julliard to defend his track record in media rights, promising that he would fight for press freedom if elected as head of UNESCO, Julliard said.   Continued...

<p>Farouk Hosni, the Egyptian Minister of Culture, speaks to the press before the world premiere of the 'The Princess of the Sun', an animated French-Belgium cartoon about Tutankhamun's reign held at the pyramids in Giza, March 13 2007. REUTERS/Tara Todras-Whitehill</p>