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Diplomacy in Action

Pressing for Freedom: The State of Digital and Media Repression Worldwide in 2013


Remarks
Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Human Rights First
Washington, DC
April 25, 2013

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Thank you, Elisa. I’d like to welcome all of you in this room – and all those joining us online. This is our 20th celebration of World Press Freedom Day, and our second year of highlighting journalists and restrictions on Freedom of Expression in our Free the Press campaign.

Joining me today from the State Department is Uzra Zeya, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. She will have comments after me, and together we will address questions you have in a few moments.

I want to thank Human Rights First for the hard work they do to hold governments accountable for universal rights and freedoms – including our own government. (I am also jealous that you folks now have Sonni Efron working for you instead of at State.) But it shows the partnership we have and that we support and encourage cooperation and interaction between NGOs and media so we can all work towards our shared goals.

The United States of America was built on freedom of expression. It was one of our first breaths of life as a nation – and remains an indispensible and enduring element of who we are.

And it is a fundamental freedom for all people, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Media freedom is a key part of that; whether it comes from what we say in public squares or from what we type on our keyboards online – print newspapers, blogs, texts, or tweets.

As I said last year, when we launched the first Free the Press campaign, it is the moral equivalent of oxygen. It is how any free, healthy, vibrant, and functioning society breathes, and it is essential to building civil societies. Without it, aspirations choke, economies suffocate, and countries are unable to grow.

Some governments are too weak or unwilling to protect journalists and media outlets. Many others exploit or create criminal libel or defamation or blasphemy laws in their favor. They misuse terrorism laws to prosecute and imprison journalists. They pressure media outlets to shut down by causing crippling financial damage. They buy or nationalize media outlets to suppress different viewpoints. They filter or shut down access to the Internet. They detain and harass – and worse.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, nearly 600 journalists have been murdered with impunity since 1992 – and last year, 2012, was the deadliest of all for journalists since they began keeping these records. As we meet, almost 250 journalists currently languish in prisons worldwide. They are incarcerated simply for doing their work – reporting to all of us what is going on in their communities and in their countries.

Last year, over 45 individuals were wrongly imprisoned in Iran. Even in countries that are moving, overall, towards democratic consolidation, there are places where journalists can be threatened and even imprisoned for their work. This year, for instance, 49 journalists are in Turkish jails – more than in those of any other individual country.

And in Pakistan, even though the size and scope of its media has dramatically expanded over the past decade, members of the press still face pressure to self-censor and restrict their coverage of sensitive issues. Security forces, political parties, militants, and other groups routinely harass and threaten journalists – and that harassment can, and does, extend to violence. Reporters Without Borders counted 10 journalists killed and two imprisoned in 2012 alone. Scores more have been threatened, abducted, and survived violent attacks.

We urge all people – members of news organizations, civil society and think tank institutions; political leaders, scholars, and citizens of every faith and ethnicity – to call for accountability. To demand that governments enforce human rights that protect journalists and this fundamental freedom. To shine a light on long-standing and emerging repressive restrictions on, and threats to, freedom of expression whether they are through traditional media or online.

As we did last year, we are highlighting individual cases for a two-week period leading up to World Press Freedom Day. We began Monday with a case in South Sudan, Tuesday with one in Cuba, and yesterday, we profiled a journalist in China.

Today, we are highlighting Zhila Bani-Yaghoub from Iran. The editor of the “Focus on Iranian Women” website, she has been jailed one year at Evin Prison for articles she wrote during the 2009 presidential election. She was charged with “spreading propaganda against the system” and “insulting the president.” She has also been banned from practicing journalism for 30 years. Previously, she has been tried – and acquitted – on similar charges three times since 2009.

As I mentioned, Iran has jailed 45 journalists since 2012, and we are calling on the government to protect the right of media freedom for all its citizens. And if you look on our Virtual Embassy Tehran page, you will see a Faces of Iran site that highlights citizens imprisoned for their religious or political beliefs.

We must continue to be vigilant. Last year, for example, the Assad regime arrested and tortured Mazen Darwish, a prominent Alawite activist and journalist. His exact whereabouts are unknown. Across the region, we are concerned that several Gulf parliaments are considering draft legislation that would authorize extended prison sentences and large fines for those who criticize their leaders.

But we must also recognize steps in the right direction. For example, the Parliament in Turkey recently enacted judicial reforms which decriminalize nonviolent expression, which may lead to the release of some of those currently imprisoned for their journalism. And in Burma, privately owned daily newspapers have returned – for the first time since the 1960’s.

The U.S. Government continues to fund programs to provide media organizations and journalists with the tools and resources they need to produce high-quality stories without fear of retribution. We will soon be building safety training facilities in El Salvador, Nairobi, and Georgia. We provide trainings and exchanges to the United States, including our Edward R. Murrow Program, and a Foreign Press Center program for visiting journalists from around the world to begin later this month. We also remain committed to supporting technological innovations that expand the space for freedom of expression, and opportunities for citizens around the world to speak out and stand up for their human rights.

We call upon the international community to join us in this and other commitments, and in addressing the undue restrictions, attacks, and threats to press freedom worldwide. Not just during this campaign, not just on World Press Freedom Day, but every day. Thank you.

Thank you – and I would now like to introduce Acting Assistant Secretary of State Zeya.



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