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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Foreign Media Celebrates World Press Freedom Day

Esther Brimmer
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs

Washington, DC
May 3, 2011

Date: 05/03/2011 Location: Washington D.C. Description: Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Esther Brimmer speaks at the Foreign Press Center's World Press Freedom Day celebration. - State Dept Image

1:30 p.m. EDT

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Thank you very much for that introduction. It’s nice to be back here – that, although my job probably doesn’t get me here as often as yours, it’s always a pleasure to be here. And I’d also like to add a warm welcome to all of you. I hope you find it a useful visit here in Washington and, hopefully, a stimulating one. We certainly had quite a news day – even just in the past couple days. So it’s really a pleasure to be here and a pleasure to speak with you this afternoon in the context of UNESCO World Press Freedom Day, and particularly in light of the role of the United States as the host.

As you know, UNESCO has commemorated World Press Freedom Day for nearly two decades. And now every year on May 3rd, more and more communities around the world take the opportunity to celebrate the fundamental principle of press freedom. They assess press freedom at home and around the world. They express their solidarity with media in line of attacks on its independence and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.

By hosting this year’s event, the United States reinforces our enduring commitment to press freedom and signals our intent to keep the promotion and protection of press freedom at the top of our national and global agendas. Even as much of the world focuses on news of the demise of one of the world’s most reviled terrorists, it is worth remembering the important role that press freedom and freedom of expression play in building societies that reject violence and extremism in favor of democracy and tolerance.

As the State Department official who oversees the U.S. engagement with the United Nations system, and I should say a longtime supporter of UNESCO, it’s a particular honor to speak to you today, not only about press freedom and the essential and too often dangerous work done by journalists, but I also want to discuss how the United States is working across the UN system, including with UNESCO, to protect and advance press freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. For Americans, the enjoyment of these crucial freedoms is hardwired into our collective national conscience. It is, and you’ll see, one of the core liberties listed in our Bill of Rights, and since the founding have been fundamental to our democracy and our way of life.

As far back as 1786, Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Jay that, quote, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” Now, if he were alive today, he probably would send probably a much briefer message on Twitter, and it would be much – probably much more direct. But I think the spirit is there and has been very much part of our thinking from the beginning of the republic.

It’s part of our enduring view of press freedom as a core and essential right, but of course, it’s not uniquely American, nor should we be complacent about its health and wellbeing. Here, as everywhere, it requires strong support and constant vigilance. We sometimes must be reminded of the valuable role press freedom plays, not only in advancing and safeguarding democracy but also in shaping our understanding of the world. For other communities around the world, perhaps places where some of you live and work, these assumptions are not always widely held, and press freedom may remain an aspiration rather than a reality. But to all of you, I offer the strongest possible U.S. support for your profession and the freedom that underpins it.

Press freedom is an issue that has long enjoyed a vigorous bipartisan consensus in U.S. foreign policy. The United States has consistently, and I would say vociferously, condemned restrictions on freedom of the press and on internet freedom around the world. It’s been a key feature at the highest levels of diplomacy. And we’ve supported press freedom in civil society countries that restrict free speech. And we have a wide variety of programs designed to support journalists, media managers, and new technologies. Of course, those of you here today are actually part of such a program, working here with the Foreign Press Center, and we particularly thank you for hosting this event today.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, our world is ever more interconnected and interdependent, so many of our biggest challenges are also global in nature: climate change, terrorism, food security, water, and urbanization. And as we become more connected and our challenges are increasingly shared, the need for a robust free media has become ever more apparent, and ostensibly local issues increasingly have global impacts. Many communities worldwide are struggling with resource questions, human migration, regional conflicts, and the impact of the global economic downturn. Indeed, in this era, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the local from the global.

It is no less true here in the United States than elsewhere. Recognizing this, President Obama has made a point of expanding traditional bilateral U.S. programs on press freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of association into new multilateral challenges. Our hosting of World Press Freedom Day, in partnership with UNESCO, should be viewed in that light, as should our robust engagement with institutions such as the United Nations Human Rights Council. This expanding multilateral engagement reflects the Administration’s pointed efforts to redirect U.S. foreign policy to engage more broadly, more actively, and more effectively. The rationale for that decision stems from the reality I’ve described. In the 21st century, our most urgent challenges don’t stop at borders. They demand cooperation and partnership, and require shared solutions.

So just as we work through the UN system to advance U.S. national security, including countering nuclear proliferation issues, preventing international terrorism, increasing security in frontline states, and promoting stability and preventing armed conflict in countries around the world, we also engage multilaterally to advance global respect for universal values. Promoting human rights is an enduring human interest and one we champion across the UN system. And multilateral bodies, including the United Nations, provide a crucial means through which the international community can set global norms and standards, and help countries meet those standards.

So we work with UNESCO on more than just World Press Freedom Day. UNESCO promotes freedom of expression and press freedom, and fosters media independence and pluralism in many ways, by providing advisory services on media legislation, for example; by making governments, parliamentarians, and other decision makers aware of the need to guarantee freedom of expression, and providing support and training environments where such resources are scarce.

UNESCO’s International Program for Development of Communication, or IPDC, provides grants to media organizations for the development of community media and capacity building of media professionals in the developing world. The United States is proud to be among that program’s key supporters because we firmly believe that support to media institutions strengthens democratic groups, promotes respect for human rights, and advances economic development and more.

Indeed, in post-conflict environments, press freedom and active media sector is crucial to fostering peace and security, accountability and reconciliation. For example, in 2009, UNESCO’s IPDC program funded the training for 250 Haitian journalists in cooperation with the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti and the Haitian Journalists Association in order to strengthen Haiti’s media sector. The program included advanced training on internet research, conflict-sensitive journalism, and journalistic ethics. And IPDC remains significantly involved in Haiti.

In Bangladesh, UNESCO’s IPDC program has been engaged in building media capacity, including strengthening community radio networks. Journalism and management training efforts there have resulted in more than 150 broadcasters, journalists, and technicians with new skills to reach an estimated 20 million people in rural communities.

Like our work at UNESCO, our active presence on the UN Human Rights Council reflects the Administration’s overarching policy of engagement in pursuit of the global respect of universal values. As you may recall, our decision to seek election to the council was not without some controversy. The United States had kept the council at arm’s length since its creation in 2005. And to be sure, the council had had and continues to have significant problems. But it was our determined belief that the council is a stronger institution with the United States as a member rather than on the sidelines.

So we chose to run for and won a seat on the Human Rights Council in 2009. Since joining, we’ve become the council’s most active delegation. And one of our first efforts we undertook was to bring the international community together around protection of freedom of expression. During the time that the previous Administration chose not to join the Human Rights Council, the international debate on freedom of expression had become, unfortunately, poisonous and divisive. This was despite the prominence accorded it in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which clearly states, as you know, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers,” end quote.

So when we took up our seat on the Human Rights Council in autumn 2009, one of our earliest initiatives was to transform the council’s treatment of this universal right. And we did so working both with traditional allies and with important newer partners to pass by consensus a concrete measure protecting freedom of expression, both by reiterating its universal nature and by creating an international rapporteur to monitor and report on threats and infringements to this right.

Although our early success on freedom of expression is emblematic of the new and positive trajectory we have achieved on the Human Rights Council, it’s not our only action to date in this area. For example, in recent sessions of the council established a special rapporteur on human rights on the situation in Iran. It created a new mechanism to promote and – the elimination of laws that discriminate against women. It issued a groundbreaking statement in support of human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. It called for renewed dedication to freedom of association, established a commission of inquiry to examine serious abuses or violations of human rights in Cote d’Ivoire, and just last week had an emergency session on Syria. The council authorized a fact-finding mission to pursue accountability for that government’s unacceptable actions against its people.

These actions are all part of moving forward in the Human Rights Council and are emblematic of why this Administration chose to work with others in that body rather than criticize from afar, and why actually the United States has run – it’ll run for reelection to the council when our term expires in 2012. I’ve already noted that the Human Rights Council is far from perfect. It still should do far more to address serious human rights issues, and it continues an unfair and imbalanced bias against Israel. But at the end of the day, the Human Rights Council should debate and respond to issues that are important, that we see as important, and that all the member states see as important. And there will be debate with or without us. The protection of human rights is far too be – important to be left to human rights abusers. And we think that the U.S. presence on the Human Rights Council has been – had a positive impact and helped the council to evolve to more closely resemble the body it should be.

But we think it’s also important because of the role it plays as part of robust international efforts to protect press freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. But it cannot endure without individuals able to exercise fully these rights. If I move back and recall, again, Thomas Jefferson, I’d be reminded that Jefferson’s recognition that press freedom is meaningless without ensuring the ability of citizens to access essential information produced by a free media. Jefferson’s observation back then was that, quote, “Every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” It’s no less true today, given the fundamental evolution in shape and form that media has taken since the era of the founders.

The increasing role of the internet, the emergence of new media, and the dramatic rise in social networking significantly impact the way news is presented and received. So just as we are expanding our understanding of press freedom, so too are we using multilateral diplomacy to ensure that technological advances are used to expand core liberties like freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Thus in the era of internet governance, we are working to ensure that the greatest number of people around the world can tap into the truly awesome power of the latest platforms for networking and information sharing.

As Secretary Clinton has noted, for many people around the world, the internet has become the new public square of the 21st century. New media empowers individuals around the world to share information and express opinions in environments hostile to freedom of expression. But despots and dictators recognize the power of the internet. That’s why so many of them, faced with protests in the Middle East and elsewhere, have tried to shut it down. Thus, just as we work to protect the right of assembly and association and the freedom of expression offline, we must ensure that these core freedoms are not infringed online. Our diplomats and experts work through a range of multilateral institutions to ensure that when international organizations address issues like internet freedom, there is a robust participation from all relevant stakeholders, including civil society and the private sector. And in making decisions about internet governance, we will continue to embrace, as Secretary Clinton repeatedly has emphasized, internet governance that supports open technical standards and administrative foundations.

Ladies and gentlemen, you are obviously keenly in tune to the role of the media and the brave individual journalists in dramatic situations unfolding across the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed it would be hard to imagine these types of widespread civil actions without the active role of broadcast media, on-the-ground reporters, and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Much has been made of the political role played in our time by social media. And while it’s absolutely true they’ve played a remarkable role in organizing sustaining public action, I would argue they cannot replace the vital work of journalists like those of you here today who are dedicated to exploring issues, developing storylines, and informing public audiences. Traditional media is clearly in a period of transition, but I am convinced it will continue to have a crucial role to play, particularly in strengthening young democracies as well as promoting accountability and reconciliation following political transitions.

So I will close there, and we can have, I hope, a bit of a conversation about these themes, about your impressions or your visit or whatever you’d like to talk to. But again, it is my honor to be able to speak to you today on World Press Freedom Day. Again, I’m honored the United States could host this event along with UNESCO. And again, I also thank the Foreign Press Center for hosting this event today. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

Moderator: Well, thank you very much, Dr. Brimmer, for your remarks. And on behalf of all of our colleagues, here, I’d like to thank you, the IO Bureau, and all of your staff who have worked tirelessly for months and months and months to get World Press Freedom Day together. So if we could, how about another round of applause for Dr. Brimmer, please? (Applause.)

We do have Dr. Brimmer for about another five, ten minutes, and she would be happy to entertain two or three questions. Certainly – well, I see the hands going up already. These are true journalists. Now, be careful of some of them. They can be a little bit tough. (Laughter.) Why don’t we start with our Iraqi colleague? Abeer, right here.

QUESTION: Abeer Jaafar from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. My question is about Usama bin Ladin. How do you think that this will impact the new situation in the Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa – I mean, his killing?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Thank you very much. Indeed, it of course has been a truly historic week, and while it will be both today, tomorrow, and for years to come, that we’ll see the implications, I think one of the important aspects is that for all of us to realize that someone who was responsible for perpetrating violence against people in countries on all continents will no longer be in that position. So I would hope that this would – might help inspire a new hope that someone who was responsible for that level of violence is no longer an international danger. There are many other challenges, but perhaps one of the reactions will be a new spirit of hope.

Okay, let’s go with Phillip right here.

QUESTION: Hi. Phillip de Wet from the Daily Maverick. In the spirit of biting the hand – excuse me – that just fed us, I’m very curious about the – literally – the interplay between domestic politics and what you’re doing at a United Nations level, you’ll have to forgive me, but when you speak about the rights of gay people, the first thing that comes to mind is “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the continuing battle in many states to have gay marriage legalized. Does that mean that you don’t have the moral high ground? Does it make your position on bodies like the Human Rights Council less tenable? And do you have the freedom, really, to implement the kind of programs you would like to see, given how fraught many of these issues are within the United States?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Well, thank you for the question. I appreciate the spirit. I should tell you this is my third time at the State Department. My second time was on policy planning staff, and our job was to ask the really awkward questions to our colleagues. So I love it.

But I would say – actually, I would say no. One of the important things about human rights is all of us are working on how we realize human rights in our own countries and internationally. And I see a continuity in the values that we espouse at home and internationally. And I think precisely looking at how we respect the rights of individuals – including lesbian, gay, and bisexual and transgender people – this is an important discussion here, right here at home. And this Administration, in fact, has been out front about trying to address issues, particularly at the federal level – now understand, I’m a federal official, so I focus on the federal level – we’ve looked particularly at how those issues have been addressed, both in our military – there have been important evolutions in the policy of this Administration, and I think you would acknowledge.

And I think also that, very much, we have come to the international fora on human rights precisely built on a national debate on the importance of human rights. Our own universal periodic review, we had a national discussion about human rights in our society, literally across the country. Over a thousand people participated in over 15 discussions over a year-and-a-half period, so that our discussions of the issues that we would bring forward internationally was built on an international – a domestic core of the rights we feel that are universal. Thank you.

MR. KLOPFSTEIN: I see Hani way in the back. Let’s – we’ll just kind of work our way around.

QUESTION: Hi, my name is Hani al-Hazaimeh. I’m from Jordan. I work for The Jordan Times. Considering what’s happening in the Middle East and these masses taking to the streets and the public grumbling against the oppressive regimes, all of us said in the United States now is too much involved and engaged with boosting freedom of expression and freedom of the press. But these regimes have been supported by the United States for decades, for 30 and 40 years. Don’t you think you’re a little bit late, like 20 years late?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Unfortunately, the fight for justice was – is one that takes – has taken decades and a hundred years over time. We’ve all over – we can look at the evolution, but I think that one of the exciting things about working on human rights is human progress. And I think the fact that now that we are more active and more engaged in supporting human rights is important. Indeed, obviously in the life of any individual, one would always want to say that there’s more that one could be done over time, but I think now, I think it’s important to real understanding of the historic moment and support for individuals and for civil society at this historic moment.

MODERATOR: We have time for another question. Spas, why don’t you go ahead?

QUESTION: My name is Spas Spasov. I am coming from Bulgaria. I am working for the major business news organization in the country, Economedia. Some – I want to ask you about something about – Bulgaria is a member in the European Union since 2007. And in the last report of Freedom House, it was considered as a country with partial freedom of the press. So how do you comment on the problems with freedom of the press experienced by the new democracies in the European Union but also by traditional democracies like Italy?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Thank you for the question. Indeed, I think that – one of the things that I mentioned is that all democracies have to continue to work on supporting freedom of the press, freedom of expression. And that – I think that one of the important things are the domestic mechanisms that can help support freedom of expression and support for those particular values. And I would note that in the European Union as well, not only are there domestic but also European-level efforts as well. And I think one of the interesting things is the efforts by the European Union itself to talk about human rights as European values. Indeed, the European Union, as you know, has many institutions, as does also the Council of Europe, in which Bulgaria is also a member, and indeed the European Convention on Human Rights has been one of the models of mechanisms to support human rights, including freedom of expression on the European continent, and indeed the ability of Europeans to avail themselves of that, I think, is an important mechanism. So indeed, there are important structures that Europeans can use for realization of human rights. And that’s, I think, an important development in human rights, generally, are both the global institutions but also important regional institutions that sometimes can reinforce the ability of people to recognize and help realize their human rights and call attention when they are being violated.

MODERATOR: Okay, Joseph, why don’t you go, and – once he puts his camera down. Thanks.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Joseph Belo from East Timor, working with Tempo Semanal. I must agree with my friend from Jordan a little bit and I hope it’s not too late that your government going to step in this fighting the corruption or doing something to stop the corruption in East Timor. Instead of helping the government, the corrupt government, doing something to put pressure on them to – because the challenge – meeting the challenge of training programs going to go to East Timor, whatever, the corruption there is too high. I was almost put in jail because of writing the stories about these ministers corrupt. Anyway, my question here is, one, the helping of the United States to the East Timor to build their capacity of media, there are almost $5 million spent. How you control that money really spent on the proper program for the benefit of the media?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Thank you. May I just take a moment on your opening point about corruption, indeed, corruption is one of the most corrosive factors in too many societies, and there are many different challenges on how to address these issues in many different countries. I will note just in my corner of the world, since I work on international organizations, that one of the, I think, important developments in terms of international mechanisms to try to deal with this is the new convention against corruption, which actually is trying to bring together efforts to fight corruption. And it’s, again, a new mechanism which then is trying to provide technical support to deal with what is a real international challenge that has an effect in too many societies. That’s just one of many tools, but looking at some of the international instruments we’re trying to use, that’s one way the U.S. has been particular active in trying to advance that as well.

You mentioned particularly the funding for the $5 million in East Timor. I’m not familiar exactly with how we’ve allocated that support, but I would say that my colleagues who particularly manage the individual programs try to look very carefully at how funding is used, and we’re very interested in evaluation and follow-up as well. But others are probably more directly familiar with that specific program. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Okay. We have time for two very quick questions. I think Dawood will get the next one, and then I’d like to challenge my colleagues from Latin America who seem quiet back there for a change. (Laughter.) So Dawood.

QUESTION: Thank you, Dr. Brimmer. My name is Dawood Azami, I work for the BBC World Service. You said that press freedom is a top priority for both President Obama and Secretary Clinton. Do you know how much money has been spent so far or how much resources have been allocated for the development of media in different countries?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: That’s an excellent question. I cannot give you a precise figure, but I would suggest several things one might look at would be both funding that – as I – since I work on international organizations, I would start off with our funding through UNESCO, and that’s one place that provide funding to the program that I provided. Also, our work on our bilateral programs that come out of our Bureau of Democracy and Rights of Laborers, another area I’d look. I’d also look at our colleagues that work on the support for journalism exchange, international exchange, international education programs. That’s already three different bureaus in the State Department, and that’s just within the State Department. So it’s a large question because there are many different parts of the U.S. Government that try to support the freedom of expression. But those are the sorts of places that support programs in this area.

MODERATOR: And I see Gustavo has a question.

QUESTION: My name is Gustavo Gomez from Venezuela, with Actualidad Radio. I would like to know your point of view about Venezuela’s situation and President Hugo Chavez because next year we have an election, and we’re – I would like to know your point of view and what do you think about happening in Venezuela from press freedom?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: And human rights in particular. I would comment just overall that obviously one of our enduring concerns has been pressures on the press, that indeed one of the most subtle forms is often not always as visible, and so that one of our concerns are the – so I say the more nuanced pressures on those who are trying to report on the situation in particular. So I think it’s probably incumbent on all of us to both pay attention and to help make sure that the channels remain open so that we can hear, especially with – in the coming year, the – what’s happening in Venezuela in particular. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Well, I’d like to thank all of you for your good questions. We tried to get one question from every region. Obviously, with this many journalists in one room, we can never satisfy everyone. Dr. Brimmer, thank you very much for coming today. We really appreciate it. It’s been a privilege. Thank you so much.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Okay. Thank you very much. Thank you. (Applause.)

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