Thank you, Mayor Garcetti, for your very kind words and for welcoming me to Los Angeles. I did my homework on you before coming to your town. And I came across something wonderful you said about getting to be mayor of this remarkable city: “you do this job right, you become more of an idealist.” I feel exactly the same way about having my dream job, representing the United States at the UN. I would like to offer up one of my friend and colleague Secretary of State John Kerry’s favorite expressions: “let’s get caught trying.”
To the rest of you, to all of you, let me say that I am delighted to be here and honored to participate in this unique lecture series. I want to begin by expressing my appreciation to the Daniel Pearl Foundation and to Hillel at UCLA for inviting me, and to the Ronald Burkle Center for International Relations for hosting us today.
I also want to thank all of you for showing up – especially the students. This is not an obvious place for you to be at 5pm on a sunny Sunday.
I suspect you have turned out for this lecture for the same reason that I have – because of the person for whom this lecture series is named. I didn’t have the privilege of knowing Daniel Pearl, but I know from former journalistic colleagues who did that he had an incredible empathy for others and an intense desire to learn; qualities that he inherited from his parents, Ruth Pearl and UCLA’s own Professor Judea Pearl, who are here tonight. Please join me in thanking them for giving the world Danny Pearl and for making sure we never forget him or what he stood for.
I think their son would be very proud that the Foundation established in his memory is dedicated to inter-cultural understanding. Given the circumstances of Daniel Pearl’s death, we should recognize how remarkable that is. Much of the world’s sorrow can be traced to cycles of retribution, where one group seeks revenge for real or imagined wrongs done by another.
Individuals become symbols, faiths become enemies, and hate becomes a currency of identity — all that we have in common — as fellow parents, fellow students, fellow believers — all that we have in common becomes reduced to a catastrophic alchemy of Us versus Them.
That was the ugly mindset of the men who murdered Daniel Pearl because he was a reporter, an American and, most of all, because he was a Jew. In that infamous video, the killers advertised their ruthlessness, betrayed their faith, and sought further to inflame passions that divide the world. Not long thereafter, the Daniel Pearl Foundation took its brave stand on the opposite shore, guiding us toward a more profound response to hate: urging dialogue, shared learning, reconciliation, and a recognition that individual — not collective — accountability is required to break cycles of violence.
That journey need not be an arduous one. Among the magnetic attributes of Daniel Pearl was his love of music; wherever he went, he invited people to join him in performing.
It is appropriate, therefore, that each year for the last decade, the Foundation has sponsored the Daniel Pearl World Music Days. These are events scheduled to coincide roughly with Daniel’s birthday, and they are encouraged by U.S. embassies across the globe. They bring people together to play instruments ranging from the bongos and balalaika to the trombone and harp — all the while communicating a message of mutual respect. Imagine the joyous sounds that can be produced — albeit not at once — by a mixed–ethnicity orchestra in Niger, a chorale at a Catholic college in Sudan, a Muslim-Malay combo in Singapore, and a school band for children with disabilities in one of the poorest parts of Brazil. Each year, well over a thousand concerts are conducted in some 80 countries, all to honor a writer of serious purpose who never forgot how to smile.
Just as music was close to Daniel Pearl’s mighty heart, so, too, was the pursuit of truth. As a journalist down to his toes, he was driven to uncover and report facts — nothing more, but also nothing less. He did’t seek out facts that would reinforce his own opinions about history or justice.
He instead tried to put together a puzzle — to assemble all the pieces so as to be able to vouch one simple thing: “what I am writing today really happened; this was true.”
This afternoon, as we remember Danny Pearl, I would like to discuss the global peril faced by journalists; the critical importance the United States government attaches to protecting — and promoting — the rights of the media; and the duty of open government and open society to ensure access to information so as to enhance citizen understanding and strengthen the extent to which governments are accountable to their people. My remarks today are grounded in the simple wisdom of Louis Brandeis’ great observation that “sunlight is the best of disinfectants.”
Living in America, we may take the idea of a free press for granted. Even as we lose patience with some in the media — and as we fall prey sometimes to writing off the whole enterprise as superficial or herd-like — we know deep down just how rigorous and professional journalism can still be.
Each day, we have access to a wealth of information and a wealth of commentary. And we should never take for granted what we have here, or how much our society benefits. Shockingly, according to Freedom House, only one person in six lives in a country where the press can fairly be described as free.
Today, here at home and all around the world, because of technology and the rising volume of voices from the grass roots, the struggle is intense to control information and shape perceptions about what is true. In a healthy democracy, that is attempted through open debate. Those who are governing might say one thing; the critics might claim another; social networks have the chance to weigh in; and ultimately voters have their say. But many governments lack confidence in their own legitimacy or in the credibility of their policies. So what do they do? They try to rig the game. Terrified of sunlight, they try to corrupt, intimidate, and manipulate the press.
Some governments ensure control of the media through bribery and the awarding of lucrative federal contracts.
Some require that reporters, newspapers, and broadcasters obtain licenses that are then parceled out only to friends and to people compliant enough to censor themselves.
Some impose strict limitations on the Internet and social networks.
Some enact laws that equate criticism of the government with support for subversion, terror, or treason.
Some use officially-controlled news outlets to smear the reputations of independent journalists, often accusing them of working for a foreign power.
And some employ intermediaries to harass and beat up opposition editors and reporters. Let me elaborate with a few examples.
China continues its efforts to control the free flow of information, using traditional tools of censorship and punishment along with new ones to control the internet.
In September, a reporter named Liu Hu was arrested for “defamation” after urging authorities to investigate a local official who had lost millions of yuan while overseeing the suspicious privatization of two state-owned companies. Liu’s posts were later removed, and his microblog accounts shut down without explanation. Following the publication of stories of the vast wealth accummulated by the families of Chinese leaders, the New York Times faced the challenge of getting visas for its journalists. As a result, other journalists now were (inaudible) their approach mainly in regards to themselves and their conversations, a recipe for disaster.
And China isnot the onlyegregious example. In Egypt, each day, when editors sit down to assign articles and design their front pages, they must first ask themselves how the government and military will react. In recent months, the authorities have lashed out at media thought to be sympathetic to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
They even videotaped the arrest of two Al Jazeera correspondents and then allowed a TV station to circulateing the footage accompanied by music from the movie: Thor: the Dark World. This is truly a theater of the absurd. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Egyptian government has arrested and detained over 60 journalists, both Egyptian and foreign, since this past summer. Approximately a dozen remain incarcerated.
In nearby Ethiopia, Eskinder Nega continued to work online even after his license to publish was lifted and his newspaper closed. In 2011, he was arrested for protesting the arrest of other journalists under a sweeping new law. Mr. Nega has a nine-year-old son who will be 25 when his father completes his jail sentence — all because of a blog.
And Turkey, despite being a NATO ally and partner on key issues including Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe, has the dubious distinction of remaining the world’s number one jailer of journalists in 2013 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
From Eritrea and Iran to Ukraine and Venezuela, there are many comparable stories. The good news is that fewer journalists were imprisoned last year than had been the case in 2012. The bad news is that, except for 2012, last year was the worst on record. By December’s end, more than 200 reporters were incarcerated and 105 had been killed while doing their jobs, the second highest number of journalists killed in a single year in recorded history.
Many journalists who are attacked are investigative reporters; professional snoopers who are reluctant to accept empty assurances and instead probe deeply in search of illicit connections among the criminal, the corrupt, the inept, and the extreme. In the words of one such reporter, “to do journalism is to walk on an invisible line through a field strewn with explosives.”
War correspondents are of course risking their lives every day. Two years and one day ago, the U.S.-born reporter Marie Colvin died when shells fired by the Syrian military hit the makeshift news center in which she was working.
This was during the 20th consecutive day of attacks on the rebel-held neighborhoods of the city of Homs. Colvin, like other international journalists, was in the country illegally, having entered via a smugglers’ route, climbing over walls in the night. She had spent much of her professional life in places of conflict, from the Balkans and Chechnya to Sri Lanka — where she had lost an eye to a grenade — and East Timor, where she refused to abandon a group of civilians during an enemy siege, thus saving their lives. Her final dispatch from Syria was written in what is known locally as “the widows’ basement,” a place where women and children hid behind mattresses in an area surrounded by snipers. Colvin wrote:
“The building I was staying in lost its upper floor to a rocket last Wednesday. On some streets whole buildings have collapsed — all there is to see are shredded clothes, broken pots, and the shattered furniture of families destroyed… Few homes have diesel for the tin stoves they rely on for heat in the coldest winter that anyone can remember.
“Freezing rain fills potholes and snow drifts in through windows empty of glass. No shops are open, so families are sharing what they have.”
Marie Colvin’s last verbal portrait about caring and sharing among the desperate was written in February 2012. But it was more than 700 days later, in fact, just this month that the Syrian regime– after intense pressure from the United States and the rest of the world — finally agreed to start allowing limited amounts of food into the besieged Old City of Homs. And, as we all know, Homs is only one part of an humanitarian tragedy fed by the regime’s denial of access for relief supplies.
Marie Colvin fit the classic description of a war correspondent, but — with foreign reporters banned by the Syrian government — the majority of reporting there is being done in home-grown ways, coming from local bloggers and picture takers whose content is picked up by live streaming sites and YouTube. Many of these fledgling truth-tellers have paid with their lives, including 18-year-old Molhem Barakat, a freelance cameraman who died in December during an assault in Aleppo.
Barakat had been a journalist for only about six months; he was so young that, in his final tweet, he boasted about unlocking a new level in a computer racing game. Since the Syrian War began, at least 61 reporters have been killed, while dozens more are missing.
On every continent, repressive governments are engaged in nothing less than a war on truth. Our job is to rouse ourselves and use every tool available to help truth survive and win that war. This is a responsibility that President Obama and those of us privileged to work in the U.S. government take very seriously.
Almost exactly 225 years ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote that freedom of the press is the best means of ensuring that “all the avenues of truth” are open to individual citizens. That is why, he continued, this freedom is often “the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”
One could draw a straight line from Jefferson’s assertion to President Obama’s statement in 2010 that, “the loss of Daniel Pearl was one of those moments that captured the world’s imagination because it reminded us of how valuable a free press is, and that there are those who would go to any length to silence journalists around the world.”
Immediately after saying those words, the President signed into law the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act. This statute was that rarest of Washington creatures: a bipartisan effort approved by the House of Representatives overwhelmingly and by the Senate unanimously.
In response to that law and in keeping with the President’s guidance to make sure that governments around the world know that American diplomats are watching how they treat their journalists, we have made support for press freedom one of the core and recurring themes of US diplomacy. Each day, US officials make known our backing for the right of people to speak, publish, broadcast, blog, tweet, and otherwise express themselves openly and without fear.
In Iran, even as we search for a solution to the nuclear issue, we are speaking up for the right of the Iranian people to voice their opinions online and through social media, just as their leaders do. We have also led the charge to defend internet freedom, organizing the Freedom Online Coalition, a cross-regional group of 21 governments which helped pass a landmark resolution at the Human Rights Council affirming that rights offline must be protected online. And every day, working with partners through the Digital Defenders Partnership, we help to deliver emergency assistance for activists, bloggers, citizen journalists, and ordinary citizens who are harassed, threatened, or arrested for championing human rights and raising political issues online. Standing up on behalf of these issues — casting American sunlight on the persecution of the fourth estate — is in the U.S. national interest. We know that when journalists and citizen activists cast light on flawed government policies, those policies are more likely to change, and governance is more likely to improve. We have seen this happen in our own country, time and again. It is no coincidence, as Amartya Sen famously found, that no country with a free press has ever had a famine.
But the war for truth cannot be won only with a free and open press. A society’s responsibility to hold those who govern to account should not be delegated only to a professional class of overseers. This is why President Obama has recognized that our efforts to support advocates for democratic change must be broader and deeper, embracing the fundamental human impulse to know and understand, to speak out, and to act.
A critical starting point is access to information. It wouldn’t surprise anyone at a university to hear someone say that knowledge is power, but how quickly we forget the struggle that had to be waged in our own country to ensure that, in the words of President Lyndon Johnson, “the people’s right to know is cherished and guarded.” He said these words in celebration of the end of a twenty year campaign to pass a Freedom of Information Act in the United States of America. We now promote this historic piece of legislation, but it came almost 40 years after a progressive era in which muckraking journalists first began to pry open the walls that shielded the public’s eyes from the activities of those with political power.
Now, in the era of townhalls and Google hangouts, we take for granted that citizens themselves can and should be able to ask questions of their government, seek answers, and gain back a sense of their own power.
Our struggle in the United States has been replayed in so many parts of the world. In India, where the most far-reaching right to information law on earth was passed in 2005, citizens in rural areas had long complained that local officials were stealing the wages they were owed for labor they had done on public works. Thanks to the landmark Right to Information law, rural citizens have been able to get access to official government spending data — and thus able to find out how much the government claimed it was paying local villagers. Lacking computers or advanced technology, community leaders have taken this data and simply painted the factual information on the walls of community centers in these rural areas.
When citizens come by and scrutinize the government claims painted on these walls, they become self-appointed public auditors — and, when they see glaring discrepancies between what they were said to have been paid and what they actually received, they have been able to call out local officials for fraud and corruption, and to demand that the stolen money be found and expended properly. They have found that money was said to have been spent on road projects when roads went unbuilt; school supplies that their children never saw materialize; and pensions for elderly beneficiaries who had been told they were not entitled to pensions. The link between information and citizens’ ability to crosscheck government claims and hold officials accountable is striking, and the Indian law is backed by stiff fines for government officials who withhold information.
Over the years the United States has made it a priority to promote access to information. By the last count, more than 90 countries have enacted some form of FOIA law, and the vast majority of these have been introduced in the past fifteen years.
In 2011 President Obama joined with heads of state from Brazil and seven other countries and nine civil society organizations to launch an Open Government Partnership, now 63 countries strong, to foster transparency, enhance civil liberties, and encourage the passage of laws that guarantee freedom of information. As part of the partnership, the President deepened our own commitment to freedom of information and citizen participation with a series of new commitments to the American people, including the launch of an online petition platform that has had more than 10 million and a new initiative to bring unprecedented transparency to oil, gas and mining revenues. Other participating countries have made more than one thousand commitments to improve access to information, open up public data, and create new mechanisms for ensuring that citizens have visibility and input into how their governments work. Of course the measure of any initiative is not in the commitments but in the follow-through, and the success of this effort, OGP, will turn on whether citizens are able to hold governments to their word.
We know too that, while citizens can be powerful agents of change, it often takes organized groups — so-called civil society — to translate this latent potential into meaningful change. It is not coincidental that at the very same time that freedom of press is under threat, governments around the world are cracking down on the groups on which journalists depend to make use of the facts they uncover. Within the past five years, literally dozens of countries have enacted new laws or regulations aimed at restricting the activities of civil society. We are working globally in partnership with friends to defend civil society against those who would curb its ability to function as an advocate for human dignity and an incubator of reform. In 2013 alone, we invested more than $500 million to strengthen the work of civil society groups.
Some of our initiatives in support of free expression and openness are highly public; others are more quiet; and some are both restrained and dramatic at the same time.
For example, the diverse makeup of the U.S. delegation to the Winter Olympics reflected both the grand achievements of our country’s athletes, and an eloquent response by President Obama to a Russian law denying free speech to those who believe in equal rights for LGBT persons.
Before I close, I would like to come back to where I started: the importance of the media in telling the truth.
The best journalists aren’t in the profession because they expect to become famous or rich. Most fine reporters are the opposite of humble, but they are realistic; knowing that they have chosen to travel a hard road. They are pushed along by the desire to find answers — and the issues they choose are serious ones. We don’t read about writers being threatened because of what they have to say about Justin Bieber’s driving issues. The dangers come when a reporter tackles war, crime, corruption, the denial of human rights, and breaches of public faith – subjects that affect the lives of many people and the fate of whole countries.
As Mariane Pearl, a journalist herself, has noted: one of the reasons that reporters dare to search for truth is that they have faith that if they stumble or are jailed or are killed – another human bloodhound will come along, pick up the scent, and follow the trail.
Today, all over the world, there are writers who insist that you can murder the journalist, but you can’t kill the story. And it’s important that this happen: that vital stories be picked up and the truth come out; because when that takes place, it shows that targeting a reporter, editor or blogger is an exercise in futility – a crime that won’t accomplish a thing.
The killer of Daniel Pearl is in prison. But the overall confrontation between the quest for truth and the denial of reality is renewed each and every day. We live surrounded by information, but we know that there are still many voices silenced too soon and a multitude of stories that should be told that are never heard.
This gives us plenty of work to do. And as Daniel Pearl’s example should remind us, there is always something that each of us can accomplish.
After all, defending freedom of the press is but one element of a larger struggle. Whether we are in a position in government or sitting in a classroom; whether we have access to a podium or just a smart phone; we have a duty to be advocates for honesty, openness, critical thinking, and the rights and dignity of every human being.
Daniel Pearl was just a reporter doing his job as well as it could be done. That is all and that is everything. The Earth has circled the Sun a dozen times since he was taken, but Daniel’s voice is still heard; his music lives on; and his example as a solver of puzzles and a seeker after truth inspires us – each in our own way — to pick up the trail where he left off and blaze one of our own.
- Cross posted from the U.S. Mission to the UN