President Čaputová, Minister Kacer, fellow speakers, and guests – it is a pleasure to address this forum, which has such a distinguished slate of speakers.
Events like this are as important as ever, as disturbing global trends hold far-reaching implications for our security, our prosperity, and our freedom. Well-respected civil society organizations such as Freedom House have recorded 16 consecutive years of decline in freedom worldwide. Reporters Without Borders has identified 488 journalists and media workers who are in prison solely for conducting their work, the most since it began tracking the statistic in 1995. At least 358 human rights defenders were killed around the world in 2021 according to the NGO Frontline Defenders, a marked increase over the previous five years. And Transparency International reports two-thirds of countries have serious corruption problems.
Respect for human rights within states is essential to lasting peace and prosperity among states. Domestic repression often goes hand in hand with aggression abroad. Governments that trample the rights of their people cannot be trusted to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of their neighbors. Rulers who systematically lie to their citizens and suppress independent media at home tend also to spread disinformation abroad. And political leaders who cynically manipulate history to sow hatred and division pose clear and present threats to international security.
Nowhere has this been more evident than in Europe, with Russia’s unlawful and unprovoked war against Ukraine. Evidence mounts daily of atrocities, including war crimes, committed by Russia’s forces. According to the UN, Russia’s invasion also has forced nearly 7.8 million civilians to flee Ukraine and millions more to be displaced internally, the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in Europe since the Second World War. We applaud our allies and partners for sheltering the unprecedented flow of refugees and for providing much-needed humanitarian assistance. This includes Slovakia, the location of more than 900,000 border crossings from Ukraine since February. The United States stands in solidarity with our allies and partners and has provided over $1.5 billion in humanitarian support in 2022 to Ukraine and the wider region. Meanwhile, the Russian government and its enablers in Belarus have taken their domestic repression to new extremes to silence those who express opposition to Russia’s war of aggression and to Putin’s and Lukashenka’s intensifying internal crackdowns.
At times like these, those of us who cherish democratic principles must come together to champion that which we hold most dear. The United States is committed to doing so, along with our democratic allies and partners worldwide.
At the UN General Assembly in September, President Biden underscored our commitment to defend and strengthen democracy at home and abroad. As the President put it, “democracy remains humanity’s greatest instrument to address the challenges of our time.” With our friends around the world, we must demonstrate democracy’s unparalleled capacity to deliver for people and channel change peacefully.
This is why the United States gathered over 100 world leaders and a wide range of civil society activists and private sector executives at the December 2021 Summit for Democracy. We thank President Čaputová for her participation in the Summit panel to highlight Slovakia’s success in fighting corruption. In this Year of Action ahead of a second Summit next year, we are working with participating governments – including our Slovak partners – and civil society organizations to follow through on the more than 750 commitments we collectively made to defend against authoritarianism, counter corruption, and promote human rights at home and abroad.
At the 2021 Summit, and in the months that have followed, we have underscored that to strengthen democracy, we must prioritize the information space. This means working in partnership with fellow democracies to push back against the misinformation and disinformation deployed by authoritarian governments and non-state actors to sow confusion, create or exacerbate societal divisions, and erode public trust in democracy.
What makes this moment so consequential? Of course, we are seeing authoritarian overreach in Russia’s brutal and failing attempt to destroy Ukraine as a sovereign, independent, and democratic state, including through disinformation and crackdowns on independent media. Putin’s regime is engaged in ever-intensifying repression of independent sources of information, including by ceaselessly lying to their own citizens and to the world. The Kremlin tries to suppress the truth about the atrocities its forces are committing in Ukraine and the abuses it is inflicting on its own people.
The threat posed by the Russian government’s disinformation machine doesn’t stop at the country’s borders – it affects Slovakia and many other countries every day. Russia is fostering a disinformation ecosystem that spreads false narratives to advance the Kremlin’s predatory policies around the world. No doubt many of you have seen the nefarious effects of Russia’s disinformation in your own contexts.
The people of Russia, like all people, deserve access to the truth. They have a right to know about the death, suffering, and destruction their government is causing in Ukraine. They also have a right to know about the human costs of this senseless war to their own soldiers.
Moscow’s suppression of independent information is part of a global problem: According to UNESCO, over the past five years, 85 percent of the world’s population faced a decline in press freedom. In its 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders assessed journalism as blocked, seriously impeded, or constrained in 73 percent of the 180 countries it evaluated.
Repressive governments have clamped down on independent media, arresting and imprisoning many journalists and other media professionals. Many have sought safety abroad. Today, credible and objective reporting coexists with disinformation, misinformation, and state-sponsored propaganda, and audiences often do not have the tools to differentiate fact from fiction. We must support independent, accurate reporting and the independent media that produce it. Following the shocking 2018 murders of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova, Slovaks stood up for a free press – understanding its crucial role in any democratic society.
To that end, as part of the U.S. Summit for Democracy commitments through the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, we are bolstering efforts to support independent media and protect journalists globally, including by providing up to $30 million to the International Fund for Public Interest Media. We also committed to establishing a new Journalism Protection Platform, which will promote and protect open and resilient information ecosystems. The platform will address critical needs for at-risk journalists, foster long-term sustainability of independent media outlets, enhance the impact of investigative journalism, and bolster outlets’ resilience to legal and regulatory challenges.
Corruption is also a key barrier to democratic renewal. The United States has made fighting corruption a core national security interest and foreign policy priority, illustrated by our Strategy on Countering Corruption. This is why we are advancing Summit commitments such as our Democracies against Safe Havens Initiative, which will build our partners’ capacity to hold corrupt actors accountable and deny them the ability to hide ill-gotten gains. We applaud Slovakia for working towards several anti-corruption commitments of its own from the Summit, such as improving financial investigations, strengthening corruption risk assessment, and increasing beneficial ownership transparency.
While the challenges threatening human rights and democracy are formidable, we know that courageous leaders and activists – committed to the ideals of freedom and justice – are working for peaceful, democratic change in every region of the world. And we have no doubt those committed to human rights and democracy will prevail. Thank you again for inviting me, and I wish all the forum participants great success in your discussions over coming days.