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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

World Press Freedom Day

Judith A. McHale
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Washington, DC
May 1, 2011


Thank you, Bette, for that introduction, and thank you all for joining me here tonight. Too many journalists are not with us tonight. Too many have lost their lives or their freedom in the pursuit of truth. There are 2,007 names etched into the glass of the Freedom Forum Journalists Memorial in this very building. One of them is William McHale – my uncle.

He was the Rome Bureau Chief for Time Magazine in the early 1960s. He had been working on a cover story about the Italian energy company ENI and its controversial leader, Enrico Mattei. On October 27,1962, after spending the day in Sicily investigating new methane fields, Mattei invited my uncle to join him on his private jet for the flight back to Milan. They never made it. Initially we were told the plane crashed in bad weather. It took 35 years to uncover the truth, but today we know. A bomb planted on the plane took the lives of my uncle, Mattei, and the pilot.

So to be here on this occasion, in this place, has a special meaning for me. But whenever journalists are threatened or harassed or killed, it touches us all. We all suffer. Journalism is a calling of everyday heroes. Of brave souls who speak out where silence and fear are the allies of tyrants. Of dedicated citizens who insist that there is more to an issue that others overlook as insignificant. Of dogged advocates who will not rest until the truth is exposed and injustice righted.

I am honored to be among so many heroes tonight. And I thank everyone here for your tireless efforts to safeguard journalists and their ability to work around the world. Protecting the rights of a free press is the duty of every responsible citizen. It is a responsibility we celebrate on World Press Freedom Day, even as we recognize that our work is far from done. So tonight, we recommit ourselves to defending and promoting press freedom wherever it is threatened.

The United States is proud to partner with UNESCO to support this important work. And to host this gathering of friends and colleagues for the first time in nearly 20 years of observing World Press Freedom Day. On behalf of the State Department, I’d like to particularly thank IREX, the UN Foundation, and the Center for International Media Assistance for their extraordinary efforts to make this event a reality.

As we gather here in Washington, people across North Africa and much of the Middle East are actively shaking off decades of restrictive government controls. A few weeks ago I traveled to Tunisia to see firsthand the change taking place, and to meet with the activists and citizens who are reshaping their country. They are embracing the blessings of a free press, of freedom of association, and of free expression as vital components of an open, democratic society. As one 11-year-old said to me, “I can now breathe the sweet air of freedom.”

Tunisian reporters were particularly interested in learning how to go about questioning politicians. They have never before been allowed to perform this basic function of journalism. Now, as their country prepares to hold its first democratic elections in over 20 years, they have a vital role to play. A free Tunisian press will allow Tunisian citizens to make free and informed decisions at the ballot box.

With the Arab Spring growing and changing every day, we could not have picked a more salient theme for this year’s conference. Social media and connective technologies have played an important role in each of the movements taking place around the world. As Secretary Clinton has said, the Internet is the public space of the 21st Century, and we all shape and are shaped by what happens online. The new frontiers and new barriers of 21st century media are challenging us to rethink the way we do business.

Immediate and widespread access to information over the Internet allows ideas to circulate virally. It empowers people to participate in the political lives of their countries. It equalizes voices. And it makes it nearly impossible for authoritarian governments to contain and control information as they once did.

For countries like the United States, eager to communicate directly with new populations around the world, social media open up new opportunities for engagement. But as journalists find new outlets and operating platforms, the traditional threats follow.

We are committed to preserving space for free and independent media online as well as in traditional forums. Jamming transmissions is an attack on press freedom. Denying people access to the internet is an attack on press freedom. Imprisoning, intimidating, or isolating reporters and their families is an attack on press freedom. The United States will never abrogate or compromise our commitment to press freedom as a universal, fundamental human right.

We work through speakers and exchanges and fellowships to support media training for both traditional and social media. We fund programs that train journalists in countries all over the globe. We advocate press freedom to governments around the world.

In some countries, international broadcasting networks supported by the United States are the only media outlets providing accurate, uncensored information in local languages to local populations.

And we are hosting this meeting as part of our pledge to help keep press freedom atop the global and national policy agenda. We are also proud to contribute to UNESCO’s International Program for the Development of Communication to foster community media all over the world. This program trains media professionals in some deeply troubled places.

For example, just 40 miles from Mogadishu and in the middle of Somalia’s ongoing conflict and instability, IPDC helped fund and launch the first community radio station in Jowar. Now, over 200,000 people are hearing about issues that are important to them, from flood preparation to civil rights to health practices. They may not have known how critical a working press was before, but now they can access information that improves their day-to-day life.

I’d also like to extend a special welcome to the 2011 World Press Freedom Day Fellows who work to make life better in their communities all over the world. They see a need, and they step up to fill it, even if they jeopardize their own lives and livelihoods in the process. And I’d like to thank the donors who sponsored these Fellows so that they could be here to share their personal experiences and insights.

In keeping with this year’s theme and our commitment to digital media, I am also pleased to announce that we will be recognizing a new class of Internet Freedom Fellows during the upcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council. These fellowships will help activists and journalists use social media tools in new ways as they advocate for human rights in their countries.

In closing, let me again honor the everyday heroism of those who dedicate themselves to covering and reporting the truth. Tonight, and every night, we pay tribute to you, and all those who risk great sacrifice in the name of free expression.

The State Department has created a video honoring the proud legacy of this noble calling, and I am pleased to share it with you tonight. Sadly, in the few days since this video was produced we have learned of five additional journalists killed while doing their jobs. We feel their absence deeply.

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