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  • In commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, May 3, Secretary Antony J. Blinken and FPC credentialed journalists participate in a roundtable to discuss the state of press freedom and internet freedoms around the world.  Elevating the promotion and defense of democracy and human rights is a foreign and domestic policy priority for the Biden-Harris Administration.  In this vein, the United States is concerned by governments’ increased efforts to silence independent media and otherwise suppress freedom of expression, including by efforts to control access to information via Internet shutdowns, slowdowns, or censorship and the politically motivated targeting of journalists for repression.  Access to information and ideas makes for more prosperous, democratic societies.


MR PRICE:  Good afternoon.  Thank you, everyone, for joining us.  My name’s Ned Price.  It’s my pleasure to welcome you all to this event in advance of the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day.  It’s also my pleasure and my distinct honor to introduce Secretary Blinken, who will provide some remarks on the importance of press freedom and our support for it around the world, before then turning to you and taking your questions.  So without further ado, I’ll turn it over to Secretary Blinken.   

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Ned, thanks very much, and thanks to all of you for joining us today.  For nearly 30 years, May 3 has been World Press Freedom Day, and that’s a chance for us to reaffirm the sacred principle that information is a public good, that people have a right to know the truth about the leaders, events, and policies that shape their lives.  And the journalists who bring them that information often do it at great risk to themselves. 

As part of the State Department’s recognition of World Press Freedom Day next week, we want to take questions from journalists who are out there every single day reporting and challenging in often dangerous situations, who know better than anyone how precious press freedom is.  And let me just say a few words before we get into some questions about why press freedom matters.  I’m happy to take some questions and get into a conversation. 

First, we know overall the global picture on democracy and human rights is sobering.  It’s captured in our department’s 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights practices and in recent reports from independent watchdog groups like Freedom House.  Authoritarianism is on the rise around the world.  Governments are becoming less transparent, more repressive.  Corruption is spreading.  Disinformation and misinformation are becoming rampant.  And of course, the pandemic has accelerated many of these trends; it’s provided a pretext for repressive governments to, among other things, intensify their pressure on independent media.  Some governments incarcerate journalists, harass them, target them for violence.  Some use other, more subtle (inaudible) like mandating professional licenses for journalists and using endless bureaucracy to keep them out of reach, or imposing high taxes on newsprint to push independent media out of business.  We’ve seen non-state actors like criminal gangs, terrorists, traffickers threaten journalists too.  And we’ve seen the impact of internet slowdowns, shutdowns, other restrictions that can make it impossible to operate.  This is a vivid reminder that internet freedom and press freedom actually go hand in hand.   

The Biden-Harris administration is committed to putting human rights back at the heart of our foreign policy.  That includes press freedom.  People everywhere should be free to express their beliefs, hold opinions without interference, to seek, receive, and share information and ideas.  It’s even written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, because being free to think and speak is central to what it means to be human.  We see a free press as vital for human progress.  When you harm journalists, you threaten that progress. 

That’s one reason we announced the Khashoggi ban in February.  We will impose visa restrictions on people who, acting on behalf of a foreign government, engage in activities, including suppressing, harassing, surveilling, threatening, or harming journalists or their families.   

All of the journalists here today work in countries and regions where press freedom is under attack in one way or another.  So before getting into questions, I just want to thank you for the work you do to expose abuse, to hold leaders accountable, to empower people with the information that they need to lead self – healthy, productive lives, to engage meaningfully in the political and civic lives of their countries.   

And one last thing.  I come to this with also a particular personal perspective because I started my own career as a journalist.  And while I did it in the relatively safe confines of Washington, D.C. and Western Europe, I have a particular connection, empathy, and understanding of how important a free press is to – for our democracies and really to the future of progress that we all hope to see in our societies.  So it’s something that I have a personal connection to and that I take very, very much to heart, even when I’m on the receiving end sometimes of reporting or commentary that I may not love. 

So thank you for what you do, and now mostly over to you. 

MR PRICE:  Excellent.  We will turn first to Gabriela Perozo from VPI TV in Venezuela. 

QUESTION:  Thank you so much, Mr. Secretary, for this opportunity.  This is a great time to point out some injustice happening in my country at the hand of the corrupt regime.  Venezuela has a record number of arbitrary arrests and violence against reporters.  The regime ordered our station, VPI TV, to cease operations, threatening our team with criminal charges.  Now our journalists have been forbidden to report news on the streets and the people aren’t receiving live news anymore.  However, there is something more serious.  During the pandemic, Maduro has taken total control of the information.  There is not even one journalist who can access the official sources of information or visit a hospital to verify how many people are dying daily from coronavirus.  Some media outlets have been punished, like El Nacional, who received a fine of $30 million, while others, who are privately owned but serve as a propaganda machine, keeps operating without any penalty.   

Does the U.S. consider these private media outlets to be contributors to the continued censorship while Maduro owns a million-dollar international fake news factory?  Jorge Arreaza has sent public and private communications to news international agencies criticizing their coverage in Venezuela.  Do you fear that Venezuela might follow China and expel international correspondents so the regime will have total control of everything or total control of the internet?  What could the United States do to keep the internet content unrestricted?  Thank you. 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, thank you very much.  I really appreciate the question even as it’s incredibly sobering and another – a last powerful example of a trend that we’re seeing and that I talked about a few minutes ago in other places.  And we start with the proposition that we condemn media censorship anywhere, including in Venezuela and including Maduro’s crackdown on independent media outlets and attempts to restrict access to information, including the COVID information that you mentioned. 

Look, the bottom line is a democratic government has to respect and encourage press freedom.  A confident government that is unafraid of the truth and unafraid of different opinions embraces press freedom.  Conversely, we see that governments that are not confident and don’t actually believe that they have the support of the people do just the opposite.  A confident government does not harass or intimidate journalists, much less put them in prison. 

So certainly we would urge Mr. Maduro to free journalists like – people like Roland Carreno, who has spent I believe six months now in regime detention, and allow him and others like him to do their jobs.  We’re committed to working with Venezuelan and international partners to try to strengthen an environment where all Venezuelans can find a peaceful path forward out of the current crisis with full respect for freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, an end to attacks against human rights defenders, journalists, and political opponents.  So we will continue to speak out for that, to stand for that.  

We have several initiatives to try to increase access to information in Venezuela.  These include efforts to amplify access to information through traditional media, community journalism training projects, pairing community journalists with international outlets to increase their profile, active social media engagement that reaches millions of followers.  So hopefully some of this helps.  But look, some of this is, of course, beyond our control, our ability to mandate things.  But I think it speaks volumes to Mr. Maduro’s view of whether he really has support from his own people.  If you – if you’re confident, you respect freedom of the press, freedom of opinion, even when it’s critical of you.  When you have no confidence, you do just the opposite and that’s what we’re seeing. 

MR PRICE:  We’ll turn to Veronika Munk from Telex in Hungary. 

QUESTION:  Thanks very much for this opportunity.  In the last 10 years, the Hungarian media’s fear is – became extremely divided by politics, and it is becoming harder and harder to access information from state officials.  And there are more and more media outlets that has strong connections to politicians, and there are less and less independent, critical information sources that provide fact-based news and quality journalism.  That is what we do at Telex.  And anybody who believes in freedom of press can contribute financially and donate to Telex, because this is the largest Hungarian news source that is community funded.   

And my question is:  How does the Biden-Harris administration and you as Secretary of State approach the U.S.-Hungarian relationship, and how this approach differs from the Trump administration’s?  And how do you evaluate recent developments in Hungary, especially regarding Russian and Chinese influence, rule of law, and media freedom? 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks very much.  And let me say a couple of things to that.  First, we have real concern that is shared by international press freedom advocates and many Hungarians over the decline of media pluralism in Hungary.  A diversity of independent voices, a diversity of independent opinions – that is the fabric of democracy, and so we would certainly urge the Government of Hungary to promote an open media environment.   

Europe is undoubtedly a center of geopolitical competition.  Moscow, like Beijing, is actively working against integration, against the desire of people to associate with whom they want to associate, and is seeking in different ways to undermine the democratic and sovereign will of many Central and Southern European countries.  So this is a growing concern as well.   

I think from the perspective of the United States or, for that matter, the European Union, we believe that our collective interests are best served by trying to cement democratic norms, rule of law, cooperation based on common values, based on a shared future, and that has to include freedom of expression, freedom of the press.  And I would note as well – and a real irony, and irony, of course, is something particularly familiar to Central European friends – and the irony is that, of course, Hungary for so many decades was constrained, held back in its ability to express itself and to have its – the opinions of its citizens fully expressed during the period of domination by the Soviet Union.   

So to have emerged from that only to find now growing concerns about press pluralism is, I think, again – ironic may be the wrong word.  It’s not a sufficient word, but I think it runs totally contrary to the history of – that I think Hungarians would embrace after so many decades under the domination of another country that held back freedom of expression and freedom of opinion. 

Having said that, let me also say that the United States and our administration, we’re committed to working to find ways to strengthen our relations with Hungary, a NATO Ally, and also advancing our commitment to supporting democratic institutions, human rights and the rule of law.  These things should not be incompatible.  And we do look forward to finding ways to work with Hungary on many issues of mutual interest, particularly in the security, law enforcement, economic, and energy areas, but at the same time make very clear both our concerns and our principles when it comes to human rights, the strength of democracy and its institutions, and freedom of the press. 

MR PRICE:  Next, we’ll turn to Razi Canikligil from Hurriyet.   

QUESTION:  Thank you very much, and thank you, Secretary Blinken, for doing this.  

Speaking of a freedom of press, there are some important problems, issues with Turkey and the U.S., and if I don’t ask you about them, it might seem like I am being censored.  And as you know, on April 24 there was President Biden’s statement and it was very sensitive issue.  And now, there was already problem with S-400s and now, we added this problem.   

So I remember at the briefing of the State Department about a month ago, and a spokesperson said there was no policy change on the so-called Armenian genocide issue yet, but then after all these years, President Biden decided to use that term.  And what happened this year?  And normally, State Department presses the administration, the White House, not to use that word, not to offend Turkey, not to break relationships, but relationships are already in bad ways now.  I don’t think U.S. have any leverage on press freedom criticals about Turkey’s handling press freedom. 

And then – and there’s also 400 issue.  Let me ask you that also.  And now, June 14, and there will be a NATO summit and you will be there, and President Erdogan and Biden is going to meet.  Do you have any plan how to solve – as far as I know, S-400 is the most important problem right now, and is there plan right now?  Where are we now?  There will be a new – another frozen conflict, or are we going to see some problem?  And please, answer me clearly about this S-400 and the genocide issue.  Where is your department standing, and White House, and – because now, Turkey feels offended, and how does U.S. is going to reach out to Turkish media or Turkish human right activists?  Thank you, sir. 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks very much.  So with regard to the April 24th statement, there really was not and should not have been any surprise.  President Biden expressed views that he has held for many, many years.  And he’s been very clear about that as a United States senator.  He was clear about it during his campaign.  And he is consistent as President with views that he’s held for a long time.  So I don’t think there should have been any surprise. 

And it’s also true that the President has made clear from day one his determination to put human rights and democracy at the heart of our foreign policy.  And part of that involves making sure that there is an understanding of history and an acknowledgment of past atrocities precisely in order to prevent their recurrence.   

As the President noted, the commemoration of Remembrance Day is to honor the victims, not to assign blame.  And of course, the focus that we put on this involved events in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, and it’s important, I think, in order to — 

QUESTION:  What – excuse me, sir, may I?  Was that the reason he used Ottoman in presses?   Not to bring any — 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  The statement speaks – the statement speaks clearly — 

QUESTION:  (Inaudible.) 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yeah, thank you.  No, the statement speaks clearly for itself.  And again, as I said, there should be no surprises.  I think it’s also important to note that the President had a good conversation with President Erdogan.  I know that they look forward to the opportunity to meet.  There are many, many issues and areas where we are working closely together.  Turkey is a critical ally to the United States and NATO.  We’re partnered on many shared regional interests, global interests.  And we continue to seek a strong bilateral relationship, which includes expanded areas of cooperation and effective management where we have disagreements.  And like most countries, we do have our disagreements.  We’re – we owe Turkey the respect of stating our disagreements clearly, directly, honestly, just as we expect and anticipate the same from Turkey.  And that’s been an important hallmark of our relationship.  I’ve had multiple conversations with my friend and counterpart, the foreign minister.  And again, the President, I know, looks forward to being able to speak with President Erdogan when they meet. 

On the S-400 question, a couple of things.  Look, we’ve also been – no surprises there – we’ve also been very clear, very direct, and very consistent in urging Turkey to abandon the S-400 system.  And we’ll continue to seek cooperation with Turkey on common priorities and engage in dialogue where we have disagreements.   

The acquisition of the S-400 – I’ve said this for a long time – runs directly counter to commitments all allies made at the 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw to reduce, not increase, dependencies on Russian equipment.  The purchase of the S-400 endangers the security of the United States and allied military technology – personnel as well, and it undermines the cohesion of the alliance in which Turkey and the United States are both strong and leading members.  It also undermines the interoperability of the alliance, which is so critical to its being able to function effectively and to meet any challenges that it might face.  It also, of course, provides substantial funds to Russia’s defense sector, as well as Russian access to the Turkish Armed Forces, to the Turkish defense industry. 

So we’ve imposed sanctions pursuant to legislation that Congress passed that we are bound to, the so-called CAATSA legislation that I’m sure you know well.  And we will follow the law going forward. 

So I very much hope that we can find a way forward and through this, but it’s also very important going forward that Turkey, and for that matter all U.S. allies and partners, avoid future purchases of Russian weaponry, including additional S-400s – which, again, bring Russia revenue, access, and influence.  Any significant transactions with Russian defense entities, again, could be subject to the law, to CAATSA, and that’s separate from and in addition to sanctions that have already been imposed. 

So again, we’ve – in my conversations, the President’s conversations, we’ve been very clear, very direct.  We’re not – there are no surprises.  I think our partners in Ankara know exactly where we stand, and I very much hope that we can find a positive way forward through this and focus on the many areas where it’s important that we work together and even deepen our cooperation. 

QUESTION:  Sir, if there is – I think there is no return policy on them.  Could the Crete, the Greece problem – model apply to 300 missile defense system, model for the 400?  I mean, can Turkey place them in some areas — 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  They’re very – yeah, very distinct situations, very distinct examples.  In some instances where people have bought equipment that long predates the sanctions legislation, for example, there – these are very distinct.  But the concerns that are strongly shared both by our administration and by our Congress on a bipartisan basis, Democrats and Republicans, have been clear, remain very clear, and they’re not going to change. 

MR PRICE:  We’ll turn to Muath Almari from Asharq Al-Awsat. 

QUESTION:  Thank you so much.  It’s a great honor for me to be with you, and really appreciate of doing this.  I have very quick questions, two questions.  First one is:  How do you differentiate between the importance of the press story and national security?  For example, we saw the leader of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, HTS, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani – the terrorist organization – appeared on one of American TV channels.  This is my first one.  The second one after you answer. 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So I’m not aware of that specific instance that you cite, so I can’t speak to it specifically.  What I can say just more broadly is that just as we are pressing and making the case and standing for press freedom around the world, we would be hypocritical, and beyond hypocritical, we would not have – we would really not have a leg to stand on if we were doing the opposite at home.  So it’s very important for us to stand strongly for press freedom, for a plurality – excuse me – of opinions and voices, and to do that at home, not just around the world, and to hold ourselves accountable to that standard.  I said earlier we often hear speech that I find objectionable or certainly that I disagree with, but it’s my job, especially when it’s speech that may make me uncomfortable, to do everything I can to defend and support and advance diversity of opinion, again, no matter whether it’s uncomfortable for those on the receiving end. 

So that’s the broad perspective that we have.  Again, I can’t speak to individual instances, but that’s the way we look at it. 

QUESTION:  The second question – thank you so much – what is the U.S. policy towards Iran, especially its malign activities in the Middle East region, and how do you separate them and the negotiation talks right now?   

And thank you so much.  I hope I can meet you in one-on-one.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary. 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  Thank you very much.  Look, it’s an important and complicated question.  I’ll – let me in the interest of time be brief but try to address it.  Iran poses distinct challenges and concerns, including destabilizing activities in the region, including support for terrorism, including, of course, concerns that we have about its repression of rights at home, and a nuclear program that over many years has raised deep concerns in the international community about Iran’s intentions and its increasing capacity to potentially develop a nuclear weapon – the fissile material, a weapon itself.  And we – we’re concerned with all of that. 

When we engaged in negotiations with Iran some years ago with European partners, with Russia, with China, that focused on the concerns we had about its nuclear program.  And the agreement that resulted, the JCPOA, did a very effective job in cutting off Iran’s access to have the capacity to produce fissile material for a weapon on short order.  And it pushed back the so-called breakout time, the amount of time it would take Iran to develop fissile material for a weapon, to beyond a year.  And it had the most intrusive monitoring and inspection regime of any arms control agreement ever negotiated. 

But even as we negotiated that agreement and even as concluded it, we made very clear that we would continue to take action as necessary against Iranian activities in other areas that we found objectionable, that posed a threat to peace and security, including, again, support for terrorism, destabilizing actions in the region, human rights.  And that’s exactly what we continue to do.   

So these things are not at all inconsistent.  It’s important that we deal wherever we can as effectively we can to any of the challenges posed by Iranian actions, and we were able to do that with regard to the nuclear program while at the same time continuing to stand strongly against actions in other areas.  And that remains the policy. 

MR PRICE:  So in the interest of hopefully hearing from everyone, we’re going to start group questions together and we’ll take two at once.  We’ll hear from Wajid al Jafri from Geo News.  Go ahead – Wajid. 

QUESTION:  Well, thank you, Mr. Secretary, for this opportunity.  I have a two-part question as well.  How concerned are you about freedom of press in India and Pakistan given that one is a close ally now and the other is not as much as it used to be?  And how would you, besides the initiative and the couple of initiatives that you mentioned and the Khashoggi ban especially – how would you compel these countries to promote freedom of press rather than suppressing it, which has been going on lately, a lot? 

And just a little bit part, as well, that there have been reports that India and Pakistan have engaged in back-channel talks to fix relations and especially talk about the Kashmir issue as well.  What do you say about that? 

MR PRICE:  And then we’ll also take a question from Robert Delaney.  Robert, go ahead. 

QUESTION:  Thank you, Mr. Price.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  So my question is just regarding your predecessor’s – the measures that he took against members of the – or staff of mainland Chinese media outlets operating in the U.S., including designating them as being part of foreign government outposts, and also reduced – drastically reducing their visa times.  So this, of course, had the result of China retaliating by expelling a number of American journalists, thereby kind of undercutting the ability of the American press corps to understand what’s going on in China.  Just wanted to ask, is your – like, understanding that most people know that the Chinese Government exerts a lot of control over mainland Chinese media outlets already, is there – do you see any change in this policy?  And then further to that, in general with your policy towards China, aside from a very proactive effort to shore up relations with allies, a lot of the measures in place from the previous administration remain in place, and I’m wondering going forward what we might see in, say, the next 100 days or more for China policy.  Thank you. 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks.  Thanks very much.  So let me try and address those very good and important questions. 

Look, with regard to freedom of the press in Pakistan, we are concerned by significant restrictions on media outlets, on civil society more broadly, and these are not – these are not new concerns.  But media and content restrictions as well as a lack of accountability for attacks, disappearances against journalists clearly are a threat to the ability to exercise the right to freedom of expression and association in Pakistan.  We’ve documented some of this in our Country Reports on Human Rights practices, and we see media outlets, journalists, their families in Pakistan often subject to threats, harassment at the hands of security forces, political parties, militants, other groups, all of which you’re well familiar with. 

So beyond different laws that we have on the books, beyond the Khashoggi ban that we talked about, we of course regularly raise these issues and concerns in our conversations and in our meetings with our counterparts in Pakistan.  And we also make them public.  We’ve publicly noted our concern over the arrest of prominent media figures, for example, for their work.  Sometimes the most effective thing we can do, over time at least, is to shine a light on practices that we find objectionable and also have others do the same, and hopefully that has an impact.  But our open and honest engagement with Pakistan enables us, I think, to have an ongoing, sustained dialogue on human rights issues more broadly, and more specifically when it comes to press freedom, the rule of law, religious freedom, even as we collaborate in a number of areas where we have very clear mutual interests. 

So this is an ongoing challenge, an ongoing problem, but it’s one that we’ll continue to engage in.  And with regard to any talks, I would invite you to ask – I’m not – enough – I don’t have any information on that.  I’d invite you to address that to officials in Pakistan or in India. 

On China, this is a – this is a challenging question and it’s something that I saw and engaged on last time I was in government.  Yes, the former administration designated PRC state-owned official media outlets operating in the United States as – state-owned official media enterprises as foreign missions.  It’s kind of hard to ignore the fact that the Chinese Government has effective operational and editorial control over these entities, which are focused solely on furthering Beijing’s global propaganda and at times disinformation.   

We took steps to ensure that the public knows exactly who pays their salaries and that their editorial comments are views of the Chinese Government and the Communist Party of China.  And the interest there is in just making sure of promoting transparency, not interfering with the media outlets and their ability to report on topics that they choose no matter how critical they happen to be of the United States Government or anything else.  And we didn’t ban these state-controlled media outlets which continue to operate here, but we wanted to make sure that there was transparency and that people had full knowledge that what they were reading was being, in effect, produced at the behest of the government in Beijing, not independent media. 

The real concern here is Beijing’s use of propaganda and disinformation overseas through state-owned media enterprises and platforms with the purpose, in part, of interfering or undermining democracy while restricting freedom of the press and speech in China.  And it’s very hard to say, “Oh, they can have it both ways.”  It’s a serious concern for us.  It’s a serious concern for allies and partners around the world.  And we’re trying to work together to define an affirmative democratic vision for global information and that information space to try to build resilience against threats to it and to expose malign activity wherever it is coming from. 

You know better than I do that China maintains one of the least free information spaces in the world.  And I recognize that, to your point and it’s a good one, when we take certain actions, even though it’s apples and oranges, we’ve seen Beijing take actions in response that may well have the effect of even further limiting what is already incredibly restricted space.  So it is something that we understand and is a concern.   

But it’s not sustainable either to have a total lack of reciprocity in the way China conducts its approach to media and freedom of expression and the way we and countries around the world do.  Them having the benefit of operating in a free and open media environment and denying that benefit to everyone else is really not a sustainable proposition either.  And again, I want to emphasize:  This wasn’t banning Chinese outlets; it was simply making clear who, in fact, they are beholden to. 

The second part of the question, just on differences with the approach.  We’re very focused on looking forward, not looking back.  But I would just say that as we’re thinking about and working on how we engage China in what is both an incredibly complicated and incredibly consequential relationship, we – we’re focused on the fact that there are different aspects to the relationship – some of it is adversarial; some of it is competitive; some of it is cooperative.  But the common denominator, and this is what we’ve tried to look forward on, is that whether it’s adversarial, whether it’s competitive, whether it’s cooperative, we have certain foundational interests in the way we engage China.  One is the one you pointed to, which is strengthening, reinvigorating our partnerships and alliances, because when it comes to conduct or actions that we find objectionable, that same conduct is often found objectionable by many other countries, and they are similarly aggrieved.  And when we are approaching a problem alone, that’s one thing.  When we’re approaching it with many other similarly situated countries, you tend to be more effective.  And so that’s one aspect of our approach. 

A second aspect of our approach is leaning in, engaging in multilateral organizations and institutions from which we had pulled back in recent years, because when we pull back, we’ve seen that Beijing tries to fill in.  And we want to make sure that our voice, our interests, our values are being effectively represented in those organizations, which in many instances are the ones writing the rules and shaping the norms that will actually shape the lives of people around the world for decades to come, including on the use of technology.  So that’s the second aspect of what we’re doing. 

The third aspect of what we’re doing is we are standing up and speaking out for our values.  And that’s important too.  

Finally, we are doing something that I think is critically important, and that is making the right investments here at home in our people, in our technology, in our infrastructure, because ultimately our ability to effectively advance our foreign policy, our standing in the world is, more than anything else, dependent on our strength and vibrancy at home.  And that’s the – that approach, I think, is going to be important in the way we engage China. 

One last thing while we’re on this because I do think it’s important.  Our purpose is not to contain China or to hold China back even if we could.  Our purpose is, on the contrary, to stand for the rules-based international order that we have invested in so heavily for decades and that we believe has not only been a benefit to us, but to countries around the world, including China, creating an environment in which it also could emerge.  And when that order is challenged by anyone, we will stand up and defend it – not because we’re against or trying to hold back the country in question, but because we are determined to uphold the order and defend it. So that’s an important proposition.  It’s an important distinction that sometimes gets lost.   

 MR PRICE:  We’ve already gone over our allotted time, so I would invite brief questions from our two final questioners.  First, we’ll turn to Pearl Matibe, from Power FM.  Pearl, I believe you’re on mute.   

QUESTION:  Thank you, Ned.  Secretary Blinken, I’m going to quickly give you some context so that you understand the reasons for my questions today.  To millions in Southern Africa facing extreme day-to-day survival challenges, buying a newspaper is just not a priority.  Media houses therefore earn insufficient revenue, and the only COVID-19 stimulus package is possibly a family member or a friend in the diaspora.  These deficiencies result in capture by corporates and state actors, a breeding ground for anti-West, pro-East sentiment.  In fact, radio and television station licenses are being awarded to individuals, organizations with ties to the government and the military.  Zimbabwe is a case in point.   

And so we’ve seen these laws that are causally linked that criminalize the space including the Interception of Communications Act, the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act, and cybersecurity and data protection acts.  So given this scenario, the 2021 World Press Freedom Index ranks South Africa and Botswana 32 and 30 out of 180 countries, respectively.  In stark contrast, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe range in ranking from 108 for Mozambique to 130 in Zimbabwe, with reforms moving at a snail’s pace and in face of broad proposals, for example, in the parliament of Zimbabwe, related to the promulgating of a patriot bill cited as being like the U.S. Logan Act, and where we’ve seen pre-trial detentions, incarcerations, disappearances, abductions, beatings, and expulsions rising in Mozambique, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.  

What can Southern Africa expect from President Joe Biden that demonstrates seriousness, innovation in foreign policy approach that differentiates him from his predecessors, supports media freedom in this region, training of journalists, including investing in strengthening the fourth estate, in a way that does not leave out its diaspora?  What’s Biden’s approach to these issues and in his Biden Africa doctrine, if in fact he has one? 

MR PRICE:  Thank you, Pearl.  We’ll also turn to Bruce Pannier from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. 

QUESTION:  Well, thank you very much.  The question I submitted was about reports of the U.S. seeking bases in Central Asia after the Afghan pullout, but that’s perhaps a bit off an agenda.  But – so if I could ask more about media, in Central Asia, media freedom doesn’t exist, in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.  Uzbekistan, under its second president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has shown some promise in easing previous restrictions, but recently passed – recently criminalized insulting the president on social media.  Kazakhstan’s introduced new restrictions that make it more difficult to gain – get accreditation and also limit the topics that journalists are able to give questions to from officials at press conferences.  And even in Kyrgyzstan, which has long been one of the brighter spots in Central Asia, under the new government some independent journalists are now receiving death threats for critical reporting on the actions of the new government.   

In a region where all these governments can count on Russian and Chinese support for their repressive policies, what can the U.S. do and the Biden administration do to support media freedom?  And since I’m speaking as a representative of RFE/RL right now, I would also ask you:  Our organization is getting hit by fines from the Russian Government over the foreign agent law.  And could you speak a little bit about your support from the State Department, the U.S. Government for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s mission in Russia under the current circumstances?  Thank you.  

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yeah.  Thanks to both of you.  And let me let me say to some extent, there’s some overlap because the important questions relating to both some countries in Africa as well as countries in Central Asia, where we see real challenges, real problems when it comes to freedom of the press and expression is:  What are we doing about it?  What can we do about it?  What will we do about it?  And I think there are a number of things that ultimately are going to be probably unsatisfactory in the near term, but are nonetheless essential.   

One is speaking up and speaking out, and that includes in our annual human rights country reports, where we document, with the imprimatur of the United States Government, concerns that we have in countries around the world.  I take it upon myself, when – and we just did this about a month ago when the report came out – to make sure that the Secretary of State is introducing the report to the media and to the world, again, to emphasize the seriousness that we attach to it.  Beyond that, we are speaking up and speaking out when we see individual instances of concern in countries around the world.  Our embassies are, too.  And, of course, we’re raising these issues on a regular basis in the conversations we have with our counterparts, whether it is in many of the countries in Africa that that you mentioned, or for that matter, in Central Asia.   

I just had a meeting of the so called C5+1, as you know, and this was one of the – this was one of the areas of conversations, one of the concerns that I raised, even as we’re trying to strengthen partnerships and do more together, this is always going to be an impediment to actually reaching the full potential of what we can do.  So we continue to make that very clear.  We also talked to other countries that have similar concerns.  And often, when we either speak out together or act together, we might have a greater impact.   

And then finally, we do have and we’re going to, I think, focus even more on the different programs we have for supporting, training, equipping independent media around the world.  And again, none of this is a perfect answer at all to the problem, but it does reflect the different lines of action that we’re going to pursue, and I think you will see increased emphasis on all three as we go forward.  We’re now on month whatever it is – month three of the administration, month four.  But it is very much not only my focus, but the President’s focus. 

We’ve been very seized with the RFE/RL situation with Russia.  I have spoken to my Russian counterpart about this.  I spoke to the head of RFE/RL just a couple weeks ago in my office about this.  We’re doing everything we can to be supportive and to find a good way forward.  Ultimately, Moscow is doing what Moscow will do, but we’re trying to make sure that at least in some ways we can be supportive and helpful, even if our advocacy falls on deaf ears in Moscow itself. 

MR PRICE:  Well, thank you very much, everyone, for taking part.  Thank you very much to Secretary Blinken for your remarks.  We are just moments away from the Secretary’s next meeting, but if you have a very quick final thought, please. 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  No, just to again – really to thank each and every one of you not just for today, but what you’re doing every day and for continuing, especially in increasingly challenging environments, to ask the hard questions, to hold all of us accountable, to inform citizens of what’s going on.  I really admire it.  And very imperfectly, we will do everything we can to support the work that you’re doing and the basic principles that you are giving life to.   

And when we get it wrong, we know we’re going to hear about it, and I expect nothing less.  But I also very much welcome ideas for how we can better support freedom of the press, and we have very much an open door on that, so don’t – please, don’t hesitate (inaudible) asking hard questions and holding us to account and putting us on the spot, but if there are concrete ideas that you have, I’d really like to hear those as well.  So thank you very much. 

QUESTION:  Thank you. 

QUESTION:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future