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Diplomacy in Action

Freedom of Expression in the Americas


Remarks
Arturo Valenzuela
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
Institute of the Americas Hemispheric Forum on Freedom of Expression
Washington, DC
April 5, 2011

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I want to begin by thanking the Institute of the Americas, and especially Ambassador Jeff Davidow, for hosting this important event. I owe a special debt to Jeff because in the early 1990s, during President Bill Clinton's first term, Jeff was my boss when he held the position that it is my honor to hold now. As Deputy Assistant Secretary of State at that time, I was the Department of State official responsible for managing the bilateral relationship between the United States and Mexico. I learned a great deal from Jeff, one of the great diplomats in our country's Foreign Service. As you know, his ultimate diplomatic posting was as Ambassador of the United States to Mexico, before he had the distinction of performing his extraordinary work as the head of this prestigious center of studies of the Americas. I must admit to feeling a bit reluctant about giving a speech in front of Jeff, as I distinctly recall several years ago when we were at another conference together at a time when we were both out of government. A number of speakers were there, and one of the speakers was the then Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, to talk about inter-American relations. I asked Jeff if he planned to attend the Assistant Secretary’s speech or another on the environment, and he looked me in the eye and gave me an emphatic response: “You know, Arturo, I never go to listen to a speech that I used to give.” So Jeff, I hope you will find something new in what I am going to share with our distinguished audience today. At least I’m sure that when you were speaking at your conferences, some people may have been distracted, but no one was texting, tweeting, or blogging.

I want to thank the Inter-American Press Association and the American Society of News Editors for your kind invitation to share some thoughts in this Hemispheric Forum on Freedom of Expression. It is an honor to take part in a meeting that includes representatives of the most distinguished media in the Americas and to share this forum with speakers who have played such an important role in the struggle to defend freedom of expression, one of the fundamental pillars of democratic society.

We know how important your work is in providing the news and analysis that allow citizens to be informed about the most important events in their community, their country, and the world, giving them the necessary elements to exercise their responsibilities as citizens. It is impossible achieve an authentic democracy if there are not institutions dedicated to reporting the news, or as the New York Times says, "All the News that's Fit to Print." And as we all know, at times it is difficult and dangerous to carry out that responsibility. We especially want to recognize those who risk their lives daily to uncover and disseminate the truth so that we, the citizens, have the basic elements to exercise our citizenship.

The founders of democracy in all our countries understood that a system of government that is based not on the whims of a monarch or dictator but on the sovereign will of the people has at its core a set of freedoms and basic rights, such as the right of association, the protection of human and civil rights, due process of law, the right to form political parties to compete in free elections, and the right to freedom of information and expression. Thomas Jefferson summed up emphatically the importance of freedom of expression when he wrote that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter."

The Obama Administration views promoting and defending freedom of expression in the Americas as central to our shared task of ensuring that the U.S.-Latin American relationship is moving in a positive and constructive direction. Many of you reported on President Obama’s recent trip to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador, and in every country I was struck by the quality and diversity of the coverage of his trip – from small, local papers to significant national and international newscasts. The depth of coverage in Latin America was especially important because the President’s visit occurred in a moment when much of the U.S. and international media were focused on events in Libya and Japan. In many cases, it was journalists from Latin America who best understood the significance of the President’s message -- that the countries of this Hemisphere today are ready to work together as equal partners in the important task of jointly facing how to resolve global challenges.

As President Obama underlined during his visit, we are seeing the convergence of two positive trends: the consolidation of successful market democracies making big strides in meeting their peoples’ needs and the global integration of Latin America. Today, our greatest regional challenges -- including inequality, the impunity of power, abuse of rights, ineffective institutions, and a lack of opportunity -- are receding in most countries in the Americas. And nations of the hemisphere are realizing their stake in new global challenges, like food security, climate change, transnational crime, and economic competitiveness. But we understand that important challenges also remain at the regional level -- and there is no challenge more important than the threat to democracy that arises from authoritarian tendencies that seek to curtail fundamental freedoms, among them freedom of expression.

The principle of freedom of expression was ratified internationally through the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That same year, at the Ninth International Conference of American States in Bogotá, Colombia, the countries of the hemisphere adopted the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. Article 4 of this document crystallized this right by declaring that, “Every person has the right to freedom of investigation, of opinion, and of the expression and dissemination of ideas, by any medium whatsoever.” The Inter-American Democratic Charter, signed in 2001, further underscored that “freedom of expression and of the press are essential components of the exercise of democracy.”

We recognize there have been great advances in protecting freedom of expression in the Americas over the past two decades. The era of authoritarian regimes and civil conflict has receded into the past for most countries in our region. Media ownership has diversified as traditional monopolies face new sources of competition, and the range of voices has expanded through new technologies, including, Jeff, social media like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.

It is incumbent upon all of us to defend, protect, value, and deepen the role the media play in our societies: to seek greater accuracy in a world where rumor and innuendo can masquerade as hard news, to adhere to impartiality amidst the temptation of political polarization, and to focus on events of significance and import over the siren song of sensationalism. The citizenry demands professional journalism that seeks to inform, not to inflame, and citizens know that accountability requires bravery on the part of reporters, editors, news directors, and ultimately the media owners themselves.

Owners of media companies hold a special responsibility to the public, their employees, and their shareholders. Balancing these competing demands is a difficult task. As we have seen at times in the United States, editorial mistakes and conflicts of interest represent an occupational hazard, which is why many leading news organizations, including the New York Times and the Public Broadcasting Service, have embraced the concept of an independent “ombudsman” to monitor editorial affairs and respond to consumer concerns.

This practice offers a compelling mechanism for media companies to oversee and provide accountability in their reporting and build trust with their readers, listeners, viewers, and users of new media. While governments should not attempt to manipulate the press to enhance their political power, we must also guard against efforts to use the media to pursue narrow economic or political interests at the expense of the public good.

Social media provide new platforms that allow individuals to exercise their right of freedom of expression by declaring, broadcasting, and amplifying their own opinions. In the Americas, individuals and organizations alike have used social media tools to benefit civil society by adding transparency to elections, allowing citizen journalists to report on otherwise under-covered stories, and overcoming repressive media environments, such as in Venezuela and Cuba. Social media platforms are the 21st century tool of choice for individuals to connect, organize, make their voices heard, and play a growing role in setting the public agenda.

In recent months, social media have played a compelling role in the liberation movements of Tunisia, Egypt, and the greater Middle East. But Latin America was an early pioneer in the use of social media in the service of social and political reform. In early 2008, several young Colombians created a Facebook group, "One Million Voices against FARC," which mobilized the largest anti-terrorism demonstration in history, with more than 12 million participants in more than 200 cities around the world. The demonstrations destroyed any pretense that the FARC enjoyed the sympathy of the Colombian people and contributed to the many defeats and defections the FARC has suffered in the years since.

“One Million Voices against FARC” also inspired the creation of the “Alliance of Youth Movements, “a global network of organizations using social networks to oppose terrorism, violence, oppression, and extremism. The Department of State -- along with private sector partners like Howcast.com, Facebook, Google, MTV, YouTube, and Access 360 Media – helped organize the first Alliance of Youth Movements conference in New York, as well as a subsequent meeting in Mexico City in 2009 that included many social media leaders from throughout the Americas.

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, Yoani Sanchez, a blogger from Cuba, was honored as one of 10 awardees of the Secretary’s International Women of Courage Award.

Secretary Clinton said Yoani “has used technology to promote positive change. She has created an interactive space for the exchange of ideas and free expression. She has given voice to the concerns and aspirations of her fellow citizens. And, as governments are learning around the world, you cannot stop the internet. And so her words, despite her government’s best efforts, are being translated into other languages, are being picked up and spread around, because freedom knows no boundaries.”

While a major threat to the press in the past came from authoritarian regimes, today we see a new challenge posed by democratically elected leaders who seek to consolidate power through extra-constitutional means, or ruling through majoritarianism at the expense of minority rights. This comes, in part, through the targeting of the free media by a variety of means, ranging from intricate legalistic maneuvers that are nothing more than an abuse of the law, to brute force and intimidation. We must guard against these trends, because history has teaches us that challenges to freedom of expression can quickly lead to pressure on other core freedoms as well. The Committee to Protect Journalists cites several countries in Latin America as countries of particular concern for obstacles to freedom of expression and rising threats against journalists. We also view with concern, as the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression has underscored, the use of criminal accusations for crimes of disrespect, punishing those who malign the head of state – a practice that harkens back to other eras associated with authoritarian and non-democratic leaders.

In Venezuela, the president may use a Twitter account and may have won a prize in Argentina for freedom of the press, but these facts diverge greatly from the sad reality of a government that in practices shows little respect for freedom of expression. Government officials have harassed, stigmatized through official channels, and threatened media organizations and journalists with administrative penalties, seizure of property, and criminal investigations. We have been especially concerned about the persecution of Globovision and, as the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression noted, the closure of 34 radio stations.

We also realize that many countries in Latin America face climates of pervasive insecurity that can have a chilling effect on press freedom. The late 2010 poll by Latinobarómetro confirmed the greatest concern of citizens throughout the hemisphere is citizen security and the harmful impact of drug trafficking and international crime. Thus, we have increased our partnerships with countries to improve citizen safety, especially in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. And of course we continue to cooperate with Colombia. Without basic security for all, countries cannot fulfill their full economic and social potential.

Crime and violence in the hemisphere pose a particular threat to media freedom and media workers. The International Federation of Journalists reported 29 killings of journalists in Latin America and the Caribbean last year, including 10 in Honduras and 10 in Mexico.

Given that this conference is taking place so close to the U.S.-Mexican border, and I was just in Tijuana, let me say a few words about Mexico, which is facing a challenge that is illustrative for many countries in the hemisphere. Mexican media institutions remain independent of government control and are generally free to report. The days when a single dominant party could attempt to control the Mexican press are now behind us. Yet intimidation and co-optation by drug trafficking organizations pose a severe challenge to reporters and media owners, especially at the local level, where they face pressure from cartels to downplay drug violence, publicize their messages, or otherwise serve their needs.

Last month, most of Mexico's largest news media outlets agreed to a set of drug-war reporting guidelines, promising not to glorify drug traffickers, publish cartel propaganda messages, or reveal information that could endanger police operations. Although the impact of this step remains to be seen, it is a clear sign that navigating the treacherous terrain of insecurity has become a major concern of media outlets, and these concerns may also have a chilling effect in other countries of the hemisphere.

As a result of increased threats against reporters, the United States is working to promote media security and freedom. In Mexico, we are supporting "Cobertura Segura," in cooperation with the International Center for Journalists and the Digital Journalism Center at Universidad de Guadalajara – which has trained more than 100 participants from throughout Mexico, teaching safety protocols to reporters, offering guidance on the handling of sources, and providing best practices about how to work in a high-threat environment. We have sponsored similar training in Panama for journalists from around the region, and we will provide U.S. experts to train on electoral reporting and journalist safety ahead of Guatemala's upcoming elections.

In conclusion, the Obama Administration recognizes that our common goal of cooperating to achieve greater prosperity and security requires strong democratic governments that respect fundamental civil and human rights. Protecting, maintaining, and advancing freedom of expression will be crucial to that effort. We are cognizant of the continuing weaknesses in democratic procedures and the threats to their consolidation.

And while our agenda remains inclusive and seeks points of convergence even in difficult cases, we remain steadfast in our commitment to core principles and recognition of key values that are the very essence of democracy. We hope to reinforce these concepts in the activities planned to commemorate World Press Freedom Day in Washington, D.C., May 1-3, 2011. The sponsor of this event is UNESCO, the only United Nations agency that has the mandate to promote freedom of expression and its corollary, freedom of the press. The central theme of this commemoration will be "21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers."

The United States places technology and innovation at the top of our diplomatic efforts and international cooperation. The media of the digital and virtual age have empowered citizens around the world, giving them the ability to report on their realities, express their views of world events, and exchange points of view in climates that are sometimes hostile to such exercise of the right to freedom of expression. We will observe World Press Freedom Day in the context of our inescapable commitment to support and expand freedom of the press and the free exchange of information in this digital era.

Together, I believe we can forge a vision for U.S. policy that will ensure freedom of expression and guarantee that the countries of the Americas can all become bastions of freedom as our forefathers dreamed of two centuries ago. I thank you for your attention.



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