USA’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State delivers remarks on press freedom at IAPA Mid-Year Meeting in Barbados
The Inter-American Press Association held their Mid-Year meeting in Barbados over the weekend – Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Mr. John Feeley attended and delivered remarks at the plenary session on Saturday.
At the gathering, U.S. Embassy Bridgetown’s Ambassador Larry Palmer introduced his fellow envoy;-
The familiar quote from Thomas Jefferson is every bit as true and relevant today as it was 200 years ago: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
But unfortunately, not everyone places that same value on the fundamental importance of press freedom. Or they fail to understand what a truly free press represents; both in terms of responsibility and in terms of accepting genuine diversity of opinion.
As our new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Rick Stengel has noted, “Every day all over the world, there is a great global debate going on. It is about the nature of freedom and fairness, democracy and justice. It is happening in all the traditional ways, in coffee shops and on street corners, but it is also taking place on the new platforms of social media. As a result, the reach, the scale, the speed of that debate are like nothing before in history.”
And although we benefit from greater and quicker access to more information than ever before in human history, not all citizens are necessarily accompanying this change with the skill to discern what sources are more credible than others, and how to bring a sharpened media literacy to this new information environment.
Even though it is easier than anytime in human history to find information to rebut lies, it does not happen automatically or organically. Those of us committed to informing publics – whether journalists or diplomats like me — have to engage this challenge directly.
Edward R. Murrow, one of the United States’ finest journalists, and selected by President John F. Kennedy to direct our public diplomacy efforts during that administration, said, “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful. It is as simple as that.”
Old style modern communication was a one-way street – newspapers, radio, television. Because of new technology, the narrative is now a two-way street. It is a dialogue not a monologue. It is no longer governments talking to governments. Everyone with a smart phone has a voice in this global marketplace.
The issue is not whether social media is replacing traditional media – it all still starts with quality content, and it is a continuum of platforms on which that content will be available. Print and broadcast media will endure and hopefully continue to thrive, but what we also know is that ALL content will find a life at some point on digital platforms. And it will be interactive. Social media is allowing us to build relationships with people around the world, even in the most remote corners. We can and must continue to reach individuals one by one through person-to-person engagement–nothing equals that–but we can reach exponentially more through the new techniques of social media.
Recognizing this new reality, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the work of someone I admire very much, Cuban activist and blogger Yoani Sanchez. She was a recent awardee of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize. This is one of the oldest international awards in the field of journalism and it is presented to those who made a significant contribution to Inter-American understanding.
Yoani was awarded the prize in 2009, but was not allowed to travel to attend the ceremony. It was only last September that she was able to accept it in person, and I had the chance to meet with her just a few days ago when she was in Washington. The work she does, in spite of great personal danger, serves as an inspiration to many in the region. Alongside her example there are dozens of other names I could mention whose commitment and courage inspire us.
The United States believes that freedom of the press and freedom of expression are two of the most important topics facing the Americas today. Whether we say something in a public square, or if we type on our keyboards – be it published in print newspapers, blogs, texts, or tweets – our right to do that and our right to freedom of expression is, in the words of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, an “essential component” of the exercise of democracy.
The laws of all countries should guarantee an independent, diverse and pluralistic media, free from commercial, government, and political interference. We would like all citizens – not just citizens of the United States – to have unrestricted access to the most pluralistic range of information sources available.
Let me underscore that point, and with all due respect to those in this room: the quality of a truly free press is not best measured from the vantage points of media owners, editors and journalists, it best measured from the vantage point of citizens. Do they or do they not have free and varied access to the widest possible array of credible information?
The ongoing and intense public discussions on how states can best ensure freedom of expression while also ensuring public safety and national security only underscore the centrality of the issues and the seriousness with which they are regarded by citizens, courts, and public officials.
Last June, Grenada passed the Electronic Crimes Act which ultimately seeks to prevent electronic stalking and coercion, but initially had a provision that would have had unintended grave implications for journalists. We applaud the Government of Grenada’s revision of this Act, and note Prime Minister Mitchell’s acknowledgement of the influence of the regional press associations as the main catalyst in his decision to propose amendments to the law.
Last November, in a major step, the Jamaican government abolished criminal defamation and passed revised legislation that does not place unreasonable limits on freedom of expression or the publication and discussion of topics of public importance.
So as some governments step up to protect press freedom, accompanied by representatives from the media community and other parts of civil society, we in the U.S. are striving to join and stand in solidarity with those efforts.
As a government, we are committed to supporting professional development programs for journalists. For example, Embassy Guatemala created a mentorship program matching seasoned journalists from the capital with journalists in outlying areas to promote investigative reporting and ethical journalism. In Mexico, Consulate General Guadalajara launched Cobertura Segura to teach safety protocols to reporters, offering guidance on the handling of sources and providing best practices for working in a high-threat environment. And in Cuba, we’re administering long-distance courses on journalism that seek to introduce Cuban journalists to how modern, open news agencies operate. And just last week, the U.S. Embassy in Bridgetown sponsored a series of workshops for journalists in St. Kitts and Nevis and Barbados led by Mr. Luis Botello of the International Center for Journalists.
That’s just a brief sample of the kinds of things we’re doing, but the point is that we see press freedom not just as an abstract policy to be defended with words in official discourse, but also a very practical skill that needs to be taught, nurtured and promoted through programmatic engagement directly with journalists themselves.
We must not let state, commercial, or political actors impede our inherent right to express ourselves, or to allow monopolies of any kind to control information. But what we understand and treasure as a universal right, is unfortunately not a universal reality.
According to Freedom House, Latin America and the Caribbean is the only region of the world in which freedom of the press worsened over each of the past five years. This has occurred for a number of reasons. In some countries, the greatest threat to journalists comes from criminal cartels and corrupt private individuals; in others it comes from the very government itself. Some governments are either too weak or unwilling to adequately protect journalists and media outlets; others very deliberately seek to restrict those voices and control the information that reaches their citizens.
We urge all people – members of news organizations, civil society and think tank institutions; political leaders, scholars, and citizens of every faith and ethnicity – to call for accountability. To demand that governments enforce human rights that protects journalists and human rights defenders which share their common cause. To shine a light on long-standing and emerging repressive restrictions on, and threats to, freedom of expression whether they are through traditional media or online
The U.S. Government will continue to speak out in defense of these principles both publicly and privately, to fund programs to provide media organizations and journalists with the tools and resources they need to produce high-quality stories without fear of retribution, and to supporting technological innovations and an open internet that expands the space for freedom of expression, so citizens around the world can speak out and stand up for their human rights.