It’s great to be here and more than a little scary – you’re an amazing group. Among us tonight are award winners and icons, living legends and legendary curmudgeons, truth tellers, and trouble makers, one and all. So I know I have my work cut out for me and I’m really honored and truly humbled, especially having listened to those of you who came up and spoke, and read about those who were cited as well. The work that you do every day is an inspiration.
I begin by wishing a happy 75th birthday to the Overseas Press Club. Nineteen thirty-nine was a perilous year in which to be born; just as 2014 is a difficult time to be a journalist. But as we can see from the accomplishments of the men and women we honor tonight, there is still indispensable work being done, and the need for this Club — and the profession it represents — has never been more evident.
Our world is awash in propaganda masquerading as facts and images that do not always mean what they appear to mean. Good journalism — based on hard work and high standards — gives us the filter we need to separate falsehoods from reality. It can also help us to focus on what is truly important. Since I got into my current job I have had the privilege of travelling with some of you to places including Congo, Mali, and the Central African Republic, where I of course saw Jerome – been there twice, saw Jerome both times; thank you Jerome, and thank you AP– and I have read with care your dispatches from such places as Homs, Donetsk, and Juba. Have no doubt: the job of opening our eyes to what many would prefer not to see will never be obsolete.
I owe my own background as a journalist to a great mentor and some good fortune, probably like many of you. My first boss was a man named Mort Abramowitz, a career US diplomat who ran the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and who had the sensibility of a crack investigative reporter. I had interned for Mort not long after graduating from college. Born without an indifference gland, Mort saw the war in Bosnia – with its torture cells, rapes, and children being gunned down by snipers — as one of the moral and strategic challenges of his time. It wasn’t long before I found myself asking whether there was something I could do to help out.
But then I had a problem – a problem readers and journalists alike face every day. What could I actually do? I was a liberal arts major and had no obviously useful skills. I couldn’t fly a helicopter, perform triage, or tell NATO what to do. The only thing I could imagine doing passably decently was string a few sentences together. So I decided to go to Bosnia to try to become a journalist; to try to help build those imaginative bridges that others had built to — and for — me. That I even thought to try to become a war correspondent — a fairly remote prospect given my cushy twenty-something life in Washington, DC — was because journalists like Kurt Schork, John Burns, Alan Little, Gary Knight, Gilles Peress, Ron Haviv– the list goes on — made it seem like a most noble profession.
By luck, the US News and World Report had its headquarters were in the building where I was interning; I banged on the door and was soon engaged in a catechism familiar to any job applicant and all of you.
Current employment? Intern.
Reporting background? Extensive. I covered an entire season of college volleyball. Women’s volleyball.
Language skills? Bad Spanish.
Combat experience? Parents’ divorce.
And so it went. Did US News make me an offer? Unbelievably, no.
But on the way out, I asked if they would at least agree to take a collect call – remember collect calls? — if I telephoned from Bosnia. They said yes, and the day was cracked.
Today, I have a new job and a new set of responsibilities. One of my responsibilities is to be taken to task by you, my former colleagues. This has taken various forms, as of course it should. But lately there is a particular question that is making the rounds that I would like to answer here tonight once and for all. The question is: “What would the journalist Samantha Power say to the diplomat Samantha Power about country X?” My answer is: it turns out the old and the new Samantha hang out together quite a lot; we talk about current events. Most of the time we don’t mind one another’s company. And if ever the old Samantha Power gets shy about complaining about something the new Samantha Power is doing (or not doing), I can assure you that one of you will be there to pick up the slack.
There are differences for sure being one of you and being a U.S. government official. But we have a lot more in common than you would think — skepticism abounds. First, none of us have the option of turning away from the world’s toughest problems. And today, almost wherever we look, people seem to be refighting old battles or starting new ones.
All the turbulence has caused some commentators to reminisce about the good old days. But in truth, daunting challenges are nothing new for your profession or mine. The Korean war, the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall, the Vietnam War, the crushing of Prague Spring, the Iran embassy takeover — we must view the obstacles we confront now, as in the past, with clear eyes and steady purpose. And we rely on independent voices like yours to understand what we are confronting. In my job as a member of President Obama’s cabinet, I am privileged to have access to some tremendous political reporting, often provided by U.S. officials who have studied a particular country or region for much of their career. Yet the service that reporters and photographers provide is indispensable. Any of us who wish to know what is working and what isn’t in US policy — or what is happening, period — need to read what you all produce.
The second thing we have in common is we both agree on the critical importance here at home and overseas of checks and balances on governments – and that includes, of course, an independent press. Here we have our work cut out for us. One feature of our age – an under-heralded featured — is the emergence of a distinct global divide, a jagged line separating those who have enduring faith in the principles of openness and respect for human rights and those who are willing – even eager – to discard such precepts in the name of order.
Think back to high school physics and Newton’s Law – Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And the reaction we are witnessing to the technology-aided rise of grass roots activism is a big part of today’s reality. Helped along by social media, many voices are being heard for the first time. And these voices are asking questions, you’ve all heard them. Why does that policeman always have his hand out? Why is that multinational company allowed to pollute the only fresh water stream in my village? Why, for every convicted rapist, are there a hundred or more who are never arrested? Why doesn’t my community benefit from the export of natural resources? Why is the president who pledged to serve two terms still in charge after four?
Instead of trying to answer these questions, literally dozens of regimes are now engaged in a far-reaching crackdown on the right to organize, speak freely, and advocate peacefully for change. Often, these are governments that lack confidence in their own legitimacy or in the credibility of their policies. To forestall criticism, they equate legitimate dissent with treason; and make it harder for NGOs to operate; and try to control, corrupt, and intimidate the press.
Some governments strive to manipulate coverage by paying people off or by limiting newspaper and broadcasting licenses to a favored few. Others use their own media to smear the reputations of independent writers. When all else fails, authorities may employ thugs to harass or beat up editors and journalists who refuse to compromise their principles.
Let me elaborate with a few examples, several of which have been touched upon already tonight. In Egypt, each day, editors and journalists must consider carefully the potential consequences of simply doing their job. Three Al Jazeera journalists appeared in court again this week, for the sixth time, charged with joining or aiding the Muslim Brotherhood. They are among more than 60 journalists, both Egyptian and foreign, detained and arrested since the summer.
In nearby Ethiopia, Reeyot Alemu worked as a columnist for a weekly independent newspaper. In June 2011, police came to the high school where she taught English and arrested her under a sweeping new law. She has been sentenced to five years in prison for her efforts to use independent media to challenge the government. The newspaper where she worked is now closed.
In Russia, Sergei Reznik, a journalist and blogger, has been serving an 18 month prison sentence, after uncovering local corruption and abuse. And although he was physically attacked with baseball bats and shot at while doing his job, the Russian government has held nobody accountable.
Jose Antonio Torres Fernandez, previously a journalist at Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba, was arrested after he reported on the mismanagement of a public works project – just the kind of reporting that President Castro has publically called for to promote transparency and accountability. He is now serving fourteen years on trumped up charges of spying.
The list of repressive countries includes the usual suspects, but also many – such as Turkey — that have free elections. Turkey’s efforts to restrict the internet and shut down Twitter are making world news, but less visible is the fact that according to the Committee to Protect Journalists they were the number one jailer of journalists in 2013.
Overall, 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 media personal were incarcerated and 105 had been killed in 2013 while doing their jobs.
It is sobering – and unacceptable — that, worldwide, less than ten percent of crimes against journalists lead to arrests or punishment. Often, investigative reporters become targets because they refuse to stop making connections between the criminal and the powerful. War correspondents, meanwhile, do much of their most valuable work while in imminent danger, as we’ve heard tonight. In the words of one newspaper man, “To do journalism is to walk on an invisible line through a field strewn with explosives.”
Under President Obama, we have made support for press freedom one of the recurring themes of U.S. foreign policy. Each day, our diplomats demonstrate support for the right of people to speak, publish, broadcast, and otherwise express themselves without fear. We are working with allies and friends to defend civil society against those who would curb its ability to function. And we’ve encouraged leaders everywhere that the lasting stability that they claim to seek is not possible if they remove or weaken checks and balances on officialdom
In this context, it is all of our jobs to defend the inherent value of the democratic model of governance. A commitment to the democratic ideal is the third thing we share, though it is an idea that has become quite controversial, especially in places – such as the Arab Middle East — that lack a tradition of political liberty. A little more than three years have passed since a despairing Tunisian fruit peddler immolated himself in protest. The resulting upheaval gave previously repressed populations an overdue chance to vent their desires, but the Arab Spring has been accompanied, as we all know, in some places by blurred lines of authority, social unrest, and civil war. Observers are once again asking whether democracy is inherently destabilizing.
We have to tackle these questions head-on. How can democracy be blamed for the lingering disorder in Libya, where Qaddaffi ruled for 40 years without allowing even the most elementary form of democratic expression? How can democracy be blamed for the problems in Egypt where decades of authoritarianism left power in the hands of a few while frustrating and dividing the majority? How can democracy be held responsible for an Assad government that gasses and barrel bombs its people or for the flood of foreign extremists to Syria? And looking more broadly, democracy is surely not the cause of Russia’s actions in Ukraine or of mass atrocities in such countries as the Central African Republic and, more recently, South Sudan.
What we have been witnessing – and what you all have been bravely documenting — is not the result of too much democracy; it is the toxic result of democracy’s absence. Either countries have been controlled by a tiny elite for too long, or they lack the democratic infrastructure required to maintain internal unity and peace. Thus, a family in Syria may find itself trapped between those who have power and those who want it; while a family in the Central African Republic may suffer because there is no effective governing power at all.
The contrast is stark between such countries and those – from El Salvador to Indonesia to the Philippines – that have undergone democratic transitions, given people space to speak their minds and participate in political life, and begun to realize the benefits of active political competition and meaningful government accountability.
No democracy – certainly not ours — is without challenges, but democracy’s great advantage is that it contains within itself the remedy for its own weaknesses. In an autocracy, ineffective leaders are able to sustain themselves – and their destructive policies — precisely because they are above the law. In a free country, leaders and ideas are constantly being tested against alternatives. This process of experimentation and renewal is rarely tranquil and never a panacea, but more often than not, extremists can be marginalized and fresh and more promising approaches can be put into place.
There is also something infectious about actually participating in governance that most people in most places do not wish to give up. Skeptics may argue, for example, that the Arab Spring has left much of the region unchanged, but beneath the surface certain powerful trends are evident: the rise of social media, the questioning of old stereotypes, the unwillingness to remain silent, the expectation that one should have a say in who governs, and impatience with social inequity and corruption. These trends will have a profound impact over time.
Now, people who write long dark books about genocide do not tend to view the world through rose-colored glasses. And especially before this audience, there can be no sugar-coating reality. I, and my administration colleagues, are aware every minute of every day of how dangerous the world can be, and particularly for those like you who are trying every day to expose injustice.
But we are convinced that those who fear freedom will have trouble sustaining their credibility amid populations that are becoming savvier and more electronically connected each year, more connected to what you write, what you photograph, what you broadcast. We believe that autocrats will do poorly in the competition of ideas if all they have to offer is the preservation of their own privileges and those of their cronies and friends. We believe that political domination will be progressively harder in a world where women are increasingly empowered. And we believe that the lies of dictators will be unearthed by journalists who will not be stopped.
We face numerous obstacles today, as we have in the past and we no doubt will in the future. But we – those of us in government and all of you in this room – also have tremendous assets, including a belief that we must confront the world’s toughest problems, a commitment to checks and balances and accountability, and an abiding faith in democratic principles. And one of those principles is the right of journalists to accomplish with courage and vision what no one else can – to separate truth from lies and the trivial from what really matters. As Winston Churchill said, “A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny.”
It is in celebration of that principle that we are here tonight. And it’s why I am so grateful to have had the chance to join with you in observing and celebrating the 75th birthday of the Overseas Press Club and all of the honorees here this evening.
Thank you so much.
- Source: U.S. Mission to the UN