Good morning, everyone and thank you for having us here today on your campus. I will take a few minutes to talk about the theme of press freedom and why I think it is so important. Let me correct myself. Why the U.S. Government thinks it is so important.
The first thing you should know about me is that I have promoted press freedom both as a journalist and now as a diplomat. In both cases, I believe press freedom is a cherished value to be defended.
As a journalist, not a day went by without my thinking how important it was for the print and electronic media to be able to express themselves freely, whether it was about politics, social issues, religion, or race relations. To tell you the truth, you can feel the power of the pen. You feel you can make a difference, bring about change for the better.
I remember writing an article in which I carefully explained a Sunni Muslim leader’s goals of his community in Northern California. The outpouring of support and positive vibes that article generated meant so much to him and his congregation, and it opened the eyes of non-Muslims who had not taken the time to become familiar with Muslims in their midst. I wish I still had that article in my collection as a testament to the kind of positive reporting I have done and that, for a time at least, struck a positive chord and made people feel that they could live side-by-side in harmony.
It is not to say that readers and listeners always appreciated what I had to report. In fact, I could tell you hours’ worth of stories about how some people applauded my news and opinion articles while others attacked them, sometimes angrily. And make no mistake, the attacks were often directed at me, and by extension the publication I was working for.
I once wrote about a corrupt public official who took advantage of her public role to receive benefits she was not entitled to. But instead of admitting her wrongdoing, she called me up and went on a verbal rant that included threats of physical violence. My investigation had turned up evidence that she did not like, but I was able to corroborate everything. And what did our readers react? They loved it! They loved to read that a corrupt official had been exposed.
My friends, without press freedom, my newspaper would not have been able to touch her with a 10-foot pole.
In cases like that, even though I knew there were verbal threats against me and threats to the newspaper, I would always say to myself that I was carrying on a precious tradition of free expression.
As a diplomat who gets to speak with the press and who gets covered by the press, I can tell you that I have seen some not-so-flattering things written or said about me, and I have seen articles and editorials that sang the praises for what I said or did. But whether I am being praised or criticized, I have always preserved my deepest commitment to a free press.
But enough about me. You should know that the United States applauds the bravery, intellect, and professionalism of journalists around the world who risk their lives in defense of the public’s right to know, and we condemn all efforts to suppress press freedom. We believe that an independent media is an essential pillar of responsive and accountable democracies as journalism plays a crucial role in combating corruption, drawing attention to human rights abuses, and providing the public with accurate information, including holding government officials accountable.
This is what my boss, United States Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, had had to say about this: “A free press with a diversity of views and opinions, and highly trained journalists and editors, is the cornerstone of any thriving democracy.”
A free press gives voice to every citizen, provides safe spaces to discuss key issues and contributes to social-economic development. Where there is no free press, there is no freedom.
This past Tuesday marked World Press Freedom Day, a date set aside to recognize the fundamental right of press freedom, weigh the state of press freedom around the world, and reflect upon the key importance of freedom of media and information.
You probably read or heard that the Mayor of Monrovia, Jefferson Koijee, gave a speech on press freedom before the Press Union of Liberia in River Gee County. One of the points he made that I think you should all hear again is this: “The media can be an instrument of conflict resolution and peace. This is the kind of media that enables a society to make well-informed choices which is a forerunner of democratic governance and values.”
Sadly, freedom of expression remains under threat in many parts of the world as authoritarian regimes use intimidation of the media and internet shutdowns, among other tactics, to prevent criticism, accountability, and transparency.
“Imagine living in a country where the only news you receive is provided or controlled by the government, where state-run media outlets shape the narrative on domestic and world events., where you get no opposing views, where facts are what the government declares them to be with no impartial checking allowed and where journalists who do not take the government’s line are targeted for violent attacks and imprisoned. “
Fortunately, there are many vibrant press and media organizations—from print to radio to online—as well as dedicated reporters in Liberia.
Let me close by saying that the U.S. Government believes that diplomacy is not just the relationship between two governments, but rather is the culmination of deep ties that can only be built and maintained by the people of our respective countries, and that relationship relies upon accurate and timely information.
U.S. Embassy Monrovia supports independent media through a variety of programs, including exchange programs, visiting expert speakers, and training opportunities. Concurrently, USAID is working to professionalize media houses, promote adherence to journalistic standards and ethics, strengthen the legal environment for free media, and improve the Liberia Information Commission’s responsiveness to requests for information from citizens and media institutions.
Each year, U.S. Embassy Monrovia sends dozens of Liberians on U.S.-funded exchange programs. These exchanges give opportunities for many of Liberia’s future leaders to learn, network, and gain valuable skills that they bring back to their own communities. Some of our U.S.-funded exchange alumni that are journalists are:
Clearance Jackson, the OK FM station manager, Urias Togar, the Chairman of Mass Communication, Eva Flomo, the ECOWAS radio station manager, and Patrick Kollie, founder and CEO of Radio Joy Africa in Kakata, are a few examples.
That is what I wanted to share with you. Now, let us have some back and forth. I would like to hear from you, know what is on your mind. And maybe I will start by asking you what Press Freedom means to you.