Celebrating World Press Freedom Today and Every Day

at World Press Freedom Day 2013 Conference

Each year on World Press Freedom Day, we celebrate the right to freedom of expression and recognize the challenges so many courageous journalists face, as we strive to promote universal rights and more open and free societies. For so many, these rights are so routine and embedded in the cultural norms of their country that they are taken for granted; for others, they are so anathema to the daily experience that they are nearly inconceivable.

In my travels, meetings, and participation in international forums, I have found that journalists living in countries that could not seem more different often face the same obstacles and hold the same aspirations. It is because press freedom, Internet freedom, and more broadly, freedom of expression are so universal that journalists living in both open and closed societies are able to share experiences and provide both practical and moral support to colleagues in faraway lands with disparate cultures. I have been inspired by the work of governments, NGOs, and journalists, who feel compelled to assist and advocate for those operating under hostile conditions, and doubly inspired by the journalists who risk their lives and livelihoods every day to do their job.

Whether in Tajikistan, Mongolia, or Honduras, people are hungry for accurate, unbiased information about their country and the world around them, and journalists devote their lives to providing it. Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to meet with journalists in countries across five different continents, and I have been amazed at how similar our discussions have been. In their tireless quest to share information and convey the truth, journalists suffer violence, censorship, imprisonment, or sometimes most insidious, the looming threat of any or all of these things.

Just as I have seen parallels between the challenges confronted by journalists, I have seen recurring themes in my discussions with government officials in the countries in which they work. Regimes unjustifiably cite national security to stifle press freedom, bring trumped up criminal charges against journalists, and claim technical difficulties to mask internet censorship. The United States calls out these practices both publicly — as in our ongoingFree the Press Campaign — and directly with government officials. For example, during my visits to Uganda and Uzbekistan, I pointed out that governments stand to gain by fostering transparency and openness. As President Obama recently said, “…Governments continue to restrict civil society. They suppress dissent, and they stifle free expression…these tactics are as intolerable as they are shortsighted. They hold countries back, they create instability, they divide societies, and they set off cycles of retribution.” Populations around the world depend on journalists to stay informed and educated, and governments in turn can better serve their people through greater transparency.

Through our bilateral relations, public diplomacy, exchanges, and grant programs, the U.S. government supports journalists and works to hold accountable those who commit crimes against them. Ending impunity is essential to providing a safe space in which journalists can operate freely. Over the past three fiscal years, the United States government has supported programs on media freedom and Internet freedom, totaling almost $310 million in foreign assistance. More specifically, these programs provide trainings ranging from digital and physical security to ethical behavior and best practices.

Promoting press freedom, like many other important priorities, benefits from multilateral cooperation. A clear example is UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day International Conference, which I am currently attending in Costa Rica. Before leaving Washington, I met with a group of journalists representing 20 different countries on a State Department-sponsored Foreign Press Center reporting tour, and discussed the various press climates in which they operate. As a reporter working in Guinea put it, journalists are constantly “in the thick of it,” whether a country suffers from violence, corruption, or other types of oppression. Other participants from Tunisia, Bolivia, and Zimbabwe related to his experience and realized they are not alone. Once in San Jose, I moderated a panel addressing security issues facing digital journalists globally, then listened to journalists speak about the repression and impunity they face back home.

My experience this year vindicated what I already believed: press freedom and Internet freedom are sadly under constant attack, sometimes subtly and other times outright. We will continue to exert pressure on foreign governments to create spaces and platforms where journalists across the globe can share their experiences with each other and with policy makers.

As I speak with journalism students around the world, I am moved by their optimism, desire to make a positive difference, and commitment to serve their societies. It is our collective duty to work to ensure that they can practice their profession anywhere without fear or interference. We must pursue this goal not just on World Press Freedom Day, but every day.

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