MODERATOR: Good afternoon from the State Department’s Brussel’s Media Hub. I would like to welcome everyone joining us for today’s virtual press briefing. We are very honored to be joined by Amanda Bennett, the CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, or AGM.
We will try to get to as many questions as possible in the 30 minutes we have today, so please show your support and like the questions you’d most like us to cover. You can notify us of any technical difficulties at TheBrusselsHub – one word – @state.gov. Finally, a reminder that today’s briefing is on the record.
And with that, let’s get started. Ms. Bennett, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.
MS BENNETT: Oh, thank you so much, and thank you to everybody who’s joining us. I’m joining you today from back home in Washington, D.C., where I’ve just come back from a four-city visit that was focused on the importance of media freedom and fact-based journalism, and how that journalism is reaching people in closed media environments, particularly in Russia. So I’ll start with just a couple of words and then of course happy to take any of your questions.
But first, before I start, I think some of you may be familiar with the structure of U.S. Agency for Global Media, so I’ll just briefly outline what we do and who we are. I’m the chief executive officer of USAGM, the U.S. Agency for Global Media. It’s an independent agency providing accurate, objective, professional news information to the parts of the world that do not have a free and open press. I’m a journalist by training, and I often explain our mission by saying that we export the First Amendment. We’ve got six entities – Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and the Open Technology Fund – and through these entities we provide fact-based news information.
VOA provides comprehensive regional and world news to local audiences while also covering the United States in all its complexity. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting focus on specific regions, providing professional and fact-based regional and local news to their markets. And the Middle East Broadcasting Networks is a hybrid of those two models that provides comprehensive news about the region and the United States.
And finally, our newest entity, the Open Technology Fund, advances internet freedom worldwide that – and also protects the digital safety of journalists and audiences by supporting censorship circumvention tools. And many of you are probably users of those products, like VPNs – any VPNs or Signal app, the – excuse me, the app, which is called Signal. If so, you’ve used our tools.
While these entities are supported by U.S. Government funding, the editorial independence of the journalists and broadcasters at USAGM networks is a bedrock principle. The independence is in enshrined in both law and practice, including by a firewall, which protects the professional independence and integrity of our journalists, their content, and staff from government interference.
Previously, when I was director of Voice of America, I was the head of a news organization. I worked with the news. Today I’m the USAGM CEO and I do not dictate, interfere, or regulate the reporting of our entities, and I’m very proud of that.
So let’s move on to the focus of my travel and what really – what you journalists do every day. I started in The Hague, where I was proud to represent the administration at one of four simultaneous events at the second Summit for Democracy. And I was particularly pleased because the event was co-hosted by the Netherlands and focused on media freedom. Government officials, civil society organizations, media experts all gathered to discuss the full spectrum of issues facing the profession, including media viability and economic conditions as well as how you work in restrictive media environments.
We focused very squarely on the issue of journalists’ safety, which was particularly brought into focus at that moment because the Wall Street Journal reporter Irvin Gershkovich – Evan Gershkovich was wrongfully detained by Russia. And yesterday our organization had a new reminder of that when the Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Lan Thang, who has contributed to Radio Free Asia since 2013, was sentenced to prison. And as we have all made clear, journalism is not a crime, and we stand with Evan’s friends, Nguyen’s friends, and all the family and coworkers in calling for his immediate release.
From The Hague, we move to Amsterdam and then on to Riga and Prague. We had the opportunity to speak to a lot of journalists, including those from USAGM networks who have relocated out of Ukraine and Russia to continue their reporting for their own safety.
I don’t want to speak to specific conversations, of course, but I’ll offer a few characterizations – and I’m sure none of them will really surprise you.
Ukrainian journalists have not stopped their powerful reporting from the frontlines of their country despite the personal tolls, grave risks, and increasingly harsh conditions as they continue their war as the – continue their work as the war grinds on.
And Russian journalists are just as committed to revealing the horrors of the full-scale invasion to their Russian-speaking audience despite having to relocate, and many of these journalists are mourning their past lives. Many of them have had to leave everything behind, including family and friends. “My life before is over,” one young journalist told me. And at the same time, the young journalists are passionate about telling the story and revealing the truth. “I’m working for the future,” one person said. And whether it’s journalists who report stories about the conditions facing young conscripts pushed to Ukraine or the stories of Ukrainian children finally reunited with families after being sent into Russia, these journalists are working day and night using modern tools to get the facts out. They remain focused on Russian stories for Russian speakers, whether in Moscow or on Russian-speaking populations out of the country. And they’re across every platform: Telegram, YouTube, other – new techs – new app, new techs to continue to meet the audiences where they are.
We spoke about the status of media now in Russia, including the way Russians are consuming news and information. And while individual views vary, every journalist from independent Russian outlets to those journalists working for RFE/RL believe there is a significant percentage of Russians inside Russia who remain hungry for facts, for straight reporting, and for accurate information. And I can share that for our entities, VOA and RFE/RL who work in that area, our research shows that we have a measured weekly audience of 10 percent of adults inside Russia, which in a closed media environment which is dominated by state propaganda, that’s extraordinary. It’s as much as half the audience that the most popular, U.S.-based television networks get even in a completely free media environment.
And I also had the opportunity to speak to journalists from other regions of the world, like Iran and Afghanistan, where the news is similarly repressed. And yet, similar to Russia, those populations remain deeply engaged and continue to actively seek information. For example, during the height of the protests in Iran in 2022, our data shows that one in four Iranians were accessing the internet using the Open Technology Fund tools, including the VPNs. And that, I would note, almost wiped out that part of our designated budget for the entire year. It’s a good problem to have, but it’s more important that it’s a signal that news matters, journalism matters, and people want access to information.
I think all of you who are focused on this space understand this deeply. I’m so glad to speak to you today about the importance of this access and about the importance of journalism and free press. Happy to take your questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. Let’s move along to the question-and-answer portion of today’s briefing. Just a quick note, Ms. Bennett will not be addressing specific conditions in individual countries but will be talking more broadly about the issue of media freedom. With that, the line is open for any live questions. We do have two previously committed – submitted questions. We’ll start with Nadarajah Sethurupan from Norway News, Norway: “Can you take some action against the Sri Lankan Government’s harassment of media even during the last two years before the government revoked the Norwegian journalist’s passport? Can you comment on this issue?”
MS BENNETT: No, as you just said, that goes somewhat beyond my remit of the – as the head of a U.S. Government-based news organization, and so, no, I’m afraid I can’t.
MODERATOR: The other two questions that we have, unfortunately, are dealing with specific issues in specific countries as well. I’ll go ahead and read them out and perhaps it’s a pivot point to talk more generally about the issue, but those are the questions we have at the moment.
Matea Jerkovic from Oslobodjenje newspaper in Bosnia and Herzegovina: “How do the controversial changes to the criminal code, including the criminalization of defamation into law in the Republic of Srpska – what’s your view on these issues? The law on non-profit organizations is currently being worked on. How harmful are these two new laws? And how can this attitude toward the media and all the non-profit organizations be stopped?” Again, specifics, but I’m wondering if that’s not a launching point to talk about the issue more broadly.
MS BENNETT: Yeah, of course. And I’ll wrap in the subsequent question, which just asks generally about the media situation in the Western Balkans, that – where some governments are reintroducing criminalization of slander and narrowing the space for public debate.
Unfortunately, the prevalence and urgency of these questions show us what we are all working against. The media space, the free media space, is narrowing; things are becoming much more difficult; countries are closing up, using a whole variety of tactics. We can see in these questions, some of them, that they are – at the Summit for Democracy there was a lot of questions about the use of lawsuits against not only organizations but against individual journalists. The media space is narrowing, and that puts an additional burden on every one of us to figure out how we redouble our efforts to get into these closed-media spaces.
And I will say for our organization, the U.S. Agency for Global Media, this is nothing new. And I think for a lot of you, it’s nothing new either. This is very reminiscent of the two periods of time when we were most engaged, which is during the Cold War and during World War II, when the media space was virtually completely closed in many places. So getting into closed environments is what we do, and we all need to redouble our efforts to do that.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. That was the end of our submitted questions. I’ll open the floor to anybody who wants to ask a question live. We have a hand up from Alex Raufoglu. Alex, please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hey, John. Can you hear me?
MODERATOR: Yes, we have you. Thanks.
QUESTION: Thank you. Hi, Amanda. Great to hear your voice.
MS BENNETT: Hi, Alex.
QUESTION: Please bear with me. Let me start with Twitter and VOA. We have seen NPR’s reaction to what Twitter – how Twitter labeled them, and I also understand they labeled VOA as government-funded media. First of all, to your reaction to that. Also if you see this as part of like, global, let’s say, effort to undermine the U.S. institutions, including the USAGM.
And secondly, when you look at the history of VOA RFE/RL, and look at today’s Russia, the legacy of international radio in the Soviet Union, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit of how that history and that period of Cold War could teach your audience about countering Russian propaganda today, if there are similarities, and how would you draw that line?
And my last question is about Azerbaijan. I haven’t heard any recent effort in terms of trying to re-enter the country either as getting access to RFE/RL’s former office or VOA, returning back VOA to Azerbaijan. Am I wrong? Thank you so much.
MS BENNETT: Thank you. Okay, three questions, and you may have to remind me, because I’m going to try and answer them in order. Now, as to Twitter, we completely reject the implications of the label “government-funded.” Of course we’re government-funded, but it’s potentially misleading, and it – that can be construed as government-controlled. And so like NPR, we reject that. And we’re not government-controlled; we are independent. We’ve been independent by practice, as I’m sure you’ve seen many examples of, and by statute. And so to label us as government-funded we think is very, very misleading. And we continue to emphasize this distinction in our discussions with Twitter, because we think the labeling causes really unjustified concerns about the objectivity of our coverage.
Let’s see, the second question is the different time periods and what that can teach people. One of the things that’s really striking to me when I travel around the world is the number of people who come up to me of various ages – and I think everybody that works for the USAGM has had this experience, when people come up to us on the street in all kinds of countries and say: we hid under the bed listening to VOA; we hid under the bed listening to RFE; I learned English from VOA. And these are coming from countries where they were literally shut out, and yet we were still reaching them. And in fact, in some of these countries, Albania for example, we didn’t – we had – didn’t really have any good idea if anyone was listening at all. So the idea that closed societies are also societies that don’t want news and information or aren’t seeking news information we think is really false.
So we find that the experiences we have looking back at the past actually give us motivation and impetus to keep on going as opposed to saying it’s closed; let’s forget about it. So we are still looking for different ways to do this, including finding ways to increasingly keep the internet open and available, despite increasingly intense efforts to shut it down.
And the last one is Azerbaijan, and honestly I think we’ll just follow this – the thing we say at the beginning, which is we don’t want to speak to specific countries, specific projects or plans, so I think I’ll pass on that one.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. Floor is still open for additional questions. We do have one that was just submitted by Boris Sajaia, a student of the Faculty of Journalism in the University of Georgia. He asks if you can comment about the quality of media freedom in general in the South Caucasus, if there are any thoughts you’d have on the regional approach or on that particular region.
MS BENNETT: As – basically, as I said before, the state of media freedom in pretty much the entire world is getting much more tenuous, and we don’t – we don’t do any specific market research on the level of media freedom in different countries, although there are many, many organizations that do. You – I’m sure you all depend on them. The CPJ, Committee to Protect Journalists, talks about the different countries and where journalists are most in danger. Freedom House does its very respected survey on media freedom. We depend on those to look at the levels of media freedom in different areas, plus our own subjective experience. And I think our subjective experience is exactly like yours. Wherever it was, whatever the level was, it’s getting tighter everywhere.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. We do have time for a couple more questions, if there are any journalists that would like to ask a question live. There’s a question from Dejan. He asks: “What can the U.S. Government do to help expand media freedom around the world?”
MS BENNETT: Well, that’s a great question. I think you just kind of have to restate it to say, what can we all do to help expand media freedom around the world? And I can certainly speak for the U.S. Agency for Global Media, and you know what we’re doing, is we’re continuing to really scrupulously try and make sure that our reporting and our journalism and our journalists are fair, that we’re accurate, that we’re believable, that people have our trust. And then again supporting the journalists in the field – unbelievably difficult and unbelievably important, because journalists are under much more danger than ever before. And I’d like to return to the situation of The Wall Street Journal, Evan Gershkovich, and I’d first just like to, as an aside, just applaud everyone from the U.S. Government to all you journalists to his colleagues in keeping that issue in front of everyone’s mind, because journalism is not a crime. So making sure that we support our journalists in their work is really important.
And then the last thing is the technological efforts that we are making to make sure that, despite everyone’s effort to close these media markets, that we, you, all of us continue to have access. Those are three things that are really important practical things that we can all do to keep trying to protect and hopefully to expand media freedom. And to me, the fact that so many people are using our VPNs, that – I mean, think about this: One in four Iranian adults turn to our VPNs to look for information during a period of time when something important was happening inside their country. That tells me there’s demand for what we’re doing.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. We’ll leave the floor open for another minute or so to see if there’s any last questions. Alex, I see your hand is back up. Do you have one more follow-up?
QUESTION: Yes, John. Thank you so much. Just wanted to give Amanda another opportunity to address Gershkovich issue a little bit extensively in terms of the general sentiment is that Putin’s arrest of Gershkovich will deter foreign media from working in Russia, and that’s exactly what Putin wants. Do you agree with that assessment? And also, as I understand, USAGM currently doesn’t have any reporter on the ground. Is that the case?
MS BENNETT: Let me – let me speak to the first question about deterring media working in Russia. Well, I mean, of course these things are designed to make it more difficult for journalists to work inside these closed environments. And so we have these two responsibilities: First off, to make sure that when this happens we push back against it really substantially; and second, that we protect people and make sure it doesn’t happen again. So yeah, I mean, this is part of a global effort to keep free news and information not only from being – entering into those countries, but also from being produced from those countries. So yeah, absolutely on that; I think it increases our responsibility to both the journalists like Evan who have been detained, but also to make sure that we protect people as best we can.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. Any last questions from the audience?
QUESTION: No, just to remind of my second question, if you don’t mind.
MS BENNETT: I’m sorry, remind me of your second question.
QUESTION: The USAGM’s presence in Russia – are there any RFE/RL or VOA (inaudible) still operating?
MS BENNETT: No, we’re – we’re continuing to do our best to get news and information out of that country, and I think that that’s – that should be evident by seeing what we’re able to do.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. One last opportunity. It looks like, Ms. Bennett, those are the questions that we have for today. Can I turn it back to you for any final thoughts and remarks?
MS BENNETT: Thanks so much. And I just want to thank you for your presence here, thank you for your interest, and honestly, looking at the list of people here, to thank you for the efforts that you are all making to do the same thing that we’re talking about here, because all of you – all of you – are doing that, pushing back against really increasing difficulties. And so thank you all, and I really appreciate the efforts to make news and information available into closed environments.
MODERATOR: Thank you for those thoughts, ma’am. I appreciate it, and we also appreciate very much your presence here today on the virtual press briefing. Shortly we will send the audio recording of the briefing to all participating journalists and provide a transcript as soon as it is available. We’d also love to hear your feedback, and you can contact us at any time at TheBrusselsHub – one word – @state.gov. Thanks again for your participation, and we hope you can join us for another press briefing in the near future. This ends today’s briefing.
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