Fighting for the Rights of Truth Tellers

Do not let the doomsayers fool you. This is a great time to be a journalist. Before joining government, I spent 30 years in the news business, and it is never been as dynamic and innovative as it is today. Journalists have more tools than ever before for telling their stories. Mobile technology and digital platforms allow reporters to reach audiences worldwide instantly. The ability to create and distribute journalistic content has never been easier. Despite the financial pressures facing traditional media, young people entering the profession have far more varied and interesting career options than they did a generation ago.

But there is a paradox. In this era of seemingly unlimited information and access to audiences, journalists and the free press face unprecedented threats. Look around. In conflict zones, reporters are increasingly treated not as objective and impartial witnesses, but as targets and combatants. Across the globe, journalists are subject to rising levels of harassment, intimidation, and imprisonment. Autocratic leaders are criminalizing criticism and making the practice of journalism a crime. Firewalls, criminal defamation laws, restrictive NGO laws and free speech restrictions masquerading as anti-terrorism laws are all on the rise.

“Freedom of the press, whether symbolized by a pencil, a pen, a camera, or a microphone is under siege.” — Secretary of State John Kerry, Journalist Security Conference, January 2015

In 2014, more than 200 journalists were imprisoned and at least 61 journalists were killed. Worldwide, only one in ten crimes committed against media workers over the past decade has led to a conviction. That is why the United Nations has declared today, November 2, International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists.

There were only one in 10 convictions worldwide for crimes against media in the last decade, November 2, 2015 [State Department Photo]

To mark this occasion, I will speak tonight to an audience at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism about the United States’ commitment to this important cause. As President Obama said last May, it is in our national interest to defend the security of journalists and support global press freedom.

The world is a better and stronger place when “individual conscience and a press that is free [are] allowed to function.”  - President Barack Obama, World Press Freedom Day, May 2015

We are moving on several fronts to carry out the President’s vision. I am proud to say much progress has been made — although there is much work to do. In April, the State Department launched our 4th annual Free the Press campaign, highlighting the cases of individual journalists who remain wrongly imprisoned. The list included Mazen Darwish, who was imprisoned by the Syrian government for trying to expose the Asad regime’s brutal atrocities; Ta Phong Tan, who was serving a 10­ year sentence in Vietnam for unmasking government corruption; and Reeyot Alemu, who was imprisoned in Ethiopia for writing an article critical of her government. All three journalists have since been released.

In January, we convened a conference of media organizations, advocacy groups and international war correspondents to discuss ways we can work together to bolster the safety of journalists working in hazardous places. Since then, journalists in conflict zones have created apps, Facebook groups, webpages and blogs to share safety advice with soon to be travelers. These sites are primarily focused on Iraq and Syria at the moment, but are growing to include guidance for other hot spots.

Inside the State Department, we have begun the task of drafting clear protocols for all personnel at our posts around the world about how they should help journalists in crisis situations. A critical part of this guidance is assigning a single point of contact for journalists in crisis situations. And we are working to expand safety training for local journalists in conflict zones through the State Department’s SAFE initiative.

A free press requires safeguards for journalists who report from conflict zones. It also requires protections for journalists who are targeted, threatened and arbitrarily imprisoned for simply doing their jobs.

Yet even in countries that have a nominally free press, the fundamental role of journalists as truth tellers is being undermined by the epidemic of disinformation. Nations allergic to press freedoms are making renewed efforts to establish or reestablish government control of media, including access to the Internet. This, in turn, is fueling a new “golden age” of disinformation and propaganda.

For example, the Russian government has sought to clutter the information space with propaganda aimed at making objective journalists seem biased, thus eroding public trust in journalism as a profession. It is not so much that they want consumers to believe their distorted version of the truth  --  they want people to question the idea that there is any truth at all. This imperils our national security. The less trust people have in verifiable, credible information, the more susceptible they are to deceptive messaging campaigns, demagoguery and false promises.

In this information war, our most effective weapon is journalism itself  --  independent, objective, fact­-based journalism. Our mission at the State Department is to support the free press by building more resilient independent media and helping journalists do their jobs. We are doing that every day by providing financial, technical and logistical support to independent media outlets in countries from Ukraine to Estonia to Burma.

We are also promoting dialogue between foreign journalists with their American peers, through tech camps, our digital communication network and many other exchange programs and fellowships for media professionals and aspiring journalists. Over the last year, more than 1,200 foreign journalists have participated in State Department­sponsored journalism programs  --  ranging from investigative reporters from Kyrgyzstan to bloggers from the favelas of Brazil. Right now, some 100 journalists from more than 80 countries are in the United States participating in the Edward R. Murrow program for Journalists, which is in its tenth year of bringing journalists to America to share best practices and create new professional networks with counterparts from the United States and around the world.

“Journalists give all of us, as citizens, the chance to know the truth about our countries, ourselves, our governments. That makes us better. It makes us stronger.” — President Barack Obama, World Press Freedom Day, May 2015

It is our collective responsibility to fight to free imprisoned journalists, bring perpetrators of crimes against journalists to justice, and push back every day against propaganda and disinformation. Ensuring that journalists everywhere can make their voices heard is vital to creating a safer, more informed and more just world.

About the Author: Richard Stengel serves as the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

Editor's Note: This blog entry originally appeared on Medium.com.

A protester holding a placard demonstrates across the street from the headquarters of a media company in Istanbul
Posted by Richard Stengel
November 2, 2015

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