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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

World Press Freedom Day at the Newseum

Michael H. Posner
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Washington, DC
May 1, 2011

Date: 05/01/2011 Location: Washington D.C. Description: Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner briefs at the Newseum for the Foreign Press Center's Foreign reporting tour on World Press Freedom Day. - State Dept Image

3:00 p.m. EDT

NOTE: This briefing took place at the Newseum as part of the World Press Freedom Day foreign media tour.
MODERATOR: It is a real privilege to have with us Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Mr. Michael Posner. As you know, the State Department issued its Human Rights Reports about a week and a half ago. And those reports take literally all year to put together, and they are seen by people all around the world. I know in our conversations earlier this afternoon, most of you have seen your country’s specific reports, and all those reports are done in Assistant Secretary Posner’s bureau, so it’s a lot of work.

And then once the reports are done, the work isn’t over, because he’s been on a road trip. In fact, he just came back from China, where the U.S. and China continue their dialogue on human rights. And so we are really, really fortunate to have him here. I know you’re jetlagged, he’s jetlagged, we’re all tired, so we’ll try to stay awake.

And so, without any further ado, how about if we bring up Assistant Secretary Posner, and we’ll go from there. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, welcome, everybody. I’m really delighted to be here and delighted to meet with you. I’m going to speak just for a few minutes, and then I’m happy to answer any of your questions.

Before I begin, I just want to take a moment – for us to take a moment to reflect and to honor many of your colleagues who aren’t with us today. Some of them have been detained, others attacked, some can’t get exit visas. There are a number of people who probably thought about coming, but thought they might get arrested if they got to the airport. And some have been killed. So I want us to recognize the many courageous journalists around the world who represent the best of your profession. Some of them are editors, reporters, bloggers, publishers, broadcasters.

As I travel all over the world – last week in China, but in – I’ve probably been in about 35 or 40 countries in the world since I took this job a year and a half ago – I raise these cases as a matter of routine, as does Secretary Clinton and all of our diplomats. I know that some of you are in dangerous places, and I want to assure you, although we are not always able to achieve what we want diplomatically, that these – the issue of a free press and free speech is essential to what we do diplomatically and what we believe as a country.

I also want to say a special word of thanks to two organizations, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom House, who monitor these issues all year long and whose reporting on the state of journalism is essential to what we do. Some of what they report is really staggering. Since the beginning of this year, 2011, 16 journalists have been killed, 4 of whom were murdered. Since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 545 journalists have been murdered with impunity around the world, 545. That figure doesn’t include those who died while working in dangerous conditions, it’s a figure for murders. Of those, 23 percent were taken captive, 13 percent were tortured. In most cases, the crimes remain unresolved and unpunished.

There are 4,000 – according to Freedom House – 4,000 lawsuits pending against journalists at the end of last year. In – at the end of 2010, there were 145 journalists imprisoned around the world, and they’re in jail in virtually every part of the world. This year, in the Middle East alone, more than 450 journalists have been assaulted. Repression against Al Jazeera has been particularly notable, and I could go on and on.

A word about our country reports: For the last 35 years, the State Department has produced this annual report. It covers now 194 countries in the world. We report on the United States in a different way. We were part of a UN procedure called the Universal Periodic Review, where we did a comprehensive look at human rights in the United States. But we do a wide-ranging report. It’s 2 million words, 7,000 pages long, and it is the product of thousands – tens and tens of thousands of hours by our diplomats.

Journalists contribute to the report in two ways. We look at reporting down on a national level, which is helpful to us in trying to get a broad picture of what’s going on and leading us to particular facts. We try to corroborate those news reports and one of our sources for that. We corroborate everything that’s in the report with multiple sources, but sometimes local journalists are helpful in that effort as well.

There’s been a substantial increase in reporting after Congress passed the Daniel Pearl Act of 2010, which recognizes the work of The Wall Street Journal reporter who was killed in Pakistan, and so we now have a special mandate by the Congress to do more reporting on attacks against journalists.

We also are doing more reporting on worker’s rights, on internally displaced persons, on persons with disabilities, in addition to the range of things – detentions, torture, disappearance, denials of due process, broader issues of free speech, freedom of religion – that we’ve always covered. We actually have a separate report, which our bureau also does, on international religious freedom, and that report will come out later this month.

I want to just take a couple minutes – and then I’ll stop and take questions – to say something about the new media. I gather that the theme of this next couple of days is 21st century media, and it’s a subject of great interest to me and to Secretary Clinton. It’s one of her top tier priorities. The Secretary has given two speeches, one here at the Newseum a year ago January, and then another speech earlier this year, talking about internet freedom.

And one of the things she said and that we believe is that the internet represents the town square of the 21st century, and so when we talk about internet freedom, we’re talking about freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of assembly. This is the way people increasingly are communicating within their own societies and across the globe. And our intent is to help promote a free internet that cuts across borders, that is a neutral platform for people to communicate. It’s not so much for us to communicate our message, but to allow people that neutral platform, where they can exchange ideas, information, without official constraints.

In the first several years of this discussion, there’s been a lot of this concern about the walls the government’s put up to prevent information from coming in. And so a range of technologies have been developed to help circumvent those firewalls in places like Iran and China, where governments have set up constraints against access to information from outside.

But now we’re seeing a next generation of problem, which is that repressive governments around the world are not just going to block content, they’re using technologies for surveillance and for harassment of activists, and particularly journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders. We sort of think of this as the Repression 2.0; we’re in the next phase here, where we need to think about what are the protections against attacks against personal privacy and against people’s personal liberty that are associated with these government actions aimed at internet use.

Since 2008, the State Department has spent about $22 million, given to building a set of responses to these restrictions. We’re about to spend another $18 million. Our strategy is aimed at supporting the most vulnerable activists, journalists, and NGOs who are on the frontlines. And we’ve also funded and trained more than 5,000 activists from every part of the world so that they can, in fact, begin to train others – journalists, bloggers, activists – to understand both the opportunities presented by this new technology, but also the risks associated with it. So we believe this is an important aspect of what we’re doing.

I want to emphasize that we have funded these trainings. We don’t conduct them ourselves. We understand the importance of a truly independent media, and that’s why we’re looking to fund independent grantees to conduct these trainings. Again, this is not about us imparting our message or our content. It’s about creating this open space, this neutral platform where people can communicate among themselves.

We are committed to this in large part because we believe that a free media plays a primary role in promoting democracy and human rights. Secretary Clinton has talked about sustainable democracy, and she’s highlighted the importance of civil society, rule of law, transparency, and accountability. But the notion of a free press and a free media and internet – a free, neutral internet – is critical to that vision of sustainable democracy. We believe that democratic governments are our best allies, and they help produce the promise of a more stable and secure world. This is a critical part of what we call a principled engagement in the world, and it’s essential to our foreign policy.

We funded the development of a piece of software that I want to mention in particular that can run on an ordinary phone and make it a panic button. With this software, if you’re assaulted or arrested, you can push the panic button, and this phone will send an emergency message to contacts you designate to let them know you’re in trouble. We’ll be rolling out this software shortly in a few months and we’ll have an app that will erase contacts in your phone if you’re arrested. This is the sort of technology we’re now experimenting with. We’re funding a number of --

MODERATOR ROLE PLAYING A POLICEMAN: Are you a journalist? What’s going on? Give me that phone. You are under arrest Posner!!

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well that was a role play of a journalist or activist being detained or beaten. I want to demonstrate the ability of this new phone software to alert colleagues and family of a journalist in trouble, that something has happened.

MODERATOR: In a real world scenario, if we had – if he had just been attacked, it was exactly what we were talking about this morning. Automatically, phones of any contacts that A/S Posner had designated in his phone would start ringing, and then not only would his colleagues or friends or family be aware that he had been in trouble or kidnapped or beaten, but all the contacts information on that phone would have been instantly wiped clean, because we’ve seen in a lot of places around the world once the journalist gets arrested, the cell phone has all this valuable contact information, and then the police are out rounding up all the journalists and contacts who had their phone numbers saved. So this software is really, really new and exciting.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yes. There have been a couple articles about it already. Bloomberg had one last week with Businessweek.

QUESTION: And my cell phone reads “Panic,” if I’m like, “I’m in trouble.”

MODERATOR: Yes. It’s an automated text message.

MODERATOR: This software is being rolled out right now, and it’s a real breakthrough. And you would be doing us a service and all of your journalist colleagues a big service if, when you go home, you talk about this. And if you have the chance to actually report on it, why don’t you work it into your reporting so journalists throughout your country and region can --

QUESTION: What’s it called?

MODERATOR: Paper Mobile.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: And this is called the panic button.

MODERATOR: Right. And he could just be walking down the street and the phone could be in your pocket, and you hit the button and the police don’t even know that you’ve alerted your friends. So it really is exciting technology, and we’ll get you plenty more information on it because it does have a name and technical requirements and stuff, but please --

QUESTION: Who gets the call and the information?

MODERATOR: Anyone you designate. It could be colleagues at work or your family. I don’t know how many different numbers it can ring, but – we did five right here today – but then once the call goes out, everyone will know that you’re in trouble.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: What we saw in a number of places – Egypt, for example – is that activists are picked up, or journalists, and the first thing the government, the police, go for is the phone because there’s a list of addresses on it. And so rather than just be paralyzed with that and have all your contacts threatened, the idea is to have a panic button that either can wipe the slate clean or alert people, “I’ve been picked up; be careful. I’m now in custody, and they may know who you are.”

MODERATOR: Could I interrupt just for one second? Because obviously, we’re quickly transitioning into the Q&A session.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yes. That’s fine. I’m ready. Let’s do it.

MODERATOR: But I just would like everyone to raise your hand and then remind us of your name and your news organization before asking the question. And fortunately, we have a pretty good amount of time, so I’m sure we’ll get to all the questions.

The first one – let’s go first. Yes – sorry.

QUESTION: Hi, my name is Hani al-Hazaimeh, with The Jordan Times. Actually, I had the pleasure to meet you during your stay in Jordan.


QUESTION: I have two questions with regards to your report on human rights in the United States itself. Does your report include journalists in the United States? Where do you get these – the feedback from the field, from journalists? And in regard to the global human rights reporting, how do you cooperate with journalists? How do you all – do you know they’re not spies, they don’t have their own opinions and they are credible when they provide information? And with regards to this software, if I get a call from a colleague in trouble, how am I going to know where he is?

MODERATOR: Good questions.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: So let me answer the first couple questions first. As I said, the reporting we do on the United States is – as we’ve done this past year – is through a UN procedure called the Universal Periodic Review. And what we did – and this is the first time; it’s a new UN procedure, it’s three years old. We actually went to 14 cities. We did 16 public sessions with 1,000 activists on every issue, including free speech, media freedom. So we let the activists tell us what the biggest problems were, and we incorporated a lot of that into the report. We then also did a public session in Geneva, where we presented the report to the UN. We had a public session for activists. We had probably 300 people there. Again, our whole delegation took questions from people. So our internal process – I mean, we have a lot of internal debate about these things, but we use this periodic review as a way not only to write our own assessment, but really to try to get our own civil society involved, and I think it worked quite well.

On the issue of bias, every piece of reporting we do, all two million words, are subject to all kinds of scrutiny for exactly that issue. And so we’re very mindful – part of the reason it takes so long to produce the report is that we don’t ever rely on a single source. We talk to NGOs, we talk to journalists, we look at what’s in the press, we talk to governments, we talk to religious figures, and we put together a composite. And at a certain point, just as you as journalists have to make judgments about what the real truth is, we’re trying to do the same thing in much the same way. We spend a lot of time trying to account for biases, and they exist everywhere. So our efforts collectively, I think, are pretty good, but I can’t say that we’re 100 percent accurate, and we – we’re always open. And in fact, I would be – welcome for you to do the same.

As we do these reports, one of the things I say to governments is, if you have – if we have facts wrong, tell us, and we’ll correct them. And we’ve done that already in a couple of instances. But given how much information we put out, it’s surprising to me how rarely governments come back, and they say a fact – I mean, they don’t like what we say often, they don’t like the adjectives, or they don’t like – they don’t like the fact that we’re doing it, frankly. But it’s not – it’s pretty unusual for them to say we got the facts wrong.

On how you judge the – how you judge whether the panic button is for real, I mean, how do you judge anything? I guess the answer is if you and I are friends or we work together, and you get a notice from me that says I’m in trouble, it just puts you on notice that at least it’s a possibility. It may be a hoax, it may be a fraud, but the alternative is not to know. And what we’re trying to do is –

QUESTION: What is the purpose for the panic button in alerting other people when a journalist gets in trouble?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I think it’s mostly – it’s two things – one, to let people know – family, friends, et cetera – they just put Hani in jail; what are we going to do about it. But it’s also to protect you or me. It’s just to know, oh, my god, my friend just got put in jail, and they may have information about me.

QUESTION: But it’s not necessarily the government together; not only the police --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Correct. And again, this – what we’re trying is just make it – this is a defensive measure. It’s an effort to try to give people an added – a rescue opportunity so people close to them know that they’re in trouble from whatever source.

MODERATOR: Next questioner is Umer from Pakistan.

QUESTION: My name is Muhammad Umer, I work for The News International newspaper. You must be aware that 13 people died in Pakistan in 2010, and the bad thing for (inaudible) journalists. Pakistan has been fighting the war on terror for the past decade as an ally of the U.S. And journalists are not only facing problems and danger from extremists and militants, but the government over there also intimidates the media who are speaking up and who are (inaudible). So at what level does the Government of the United States engage with the Government of Pakistan to ensure that journalists are safe in Pakistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I would thank you. And I appreciate – I was in Pakistan in January, and I got a pretty clear view of some of the challenges, not only journalists face, but throughout the society. There are now all kinds of challenges. I met with Governor Taseer’s family three weeks after he was killed, and I met with Minister Bhatti and introduced him, in fact, to Secretary Clinton when he came here about a month before he was assassinated. So I am very mindful of the climate of intolerance and the – I also had several meetings with groups of journalists in Islamabad and in Lahore.

I think our diplomacy now is very much focused on those issues of intolerance. The – and frankly, there’s two elements to that relating to the press. One is, as you describe, threats against journalists, and especially those that are commenting openly, freely on what’s going on because there is an extremist element that’s so willing to use violence as a response. But the other piece that, frankly, made me also very nervous is the extremism within the press, especially the Urdu press, especially on television, and Taseer’s family, for example, spoke passionate to me – passionately about some of the wild accusations in the – on some of these TV shows against the governor and how much that’s helping to inflame the situation. I don’t know what you do about that, but it’s a very – it’s – it is a very dangerous, as you know, and a very intense climate. And we’ve continued to raise it, the Secretary’s raised it. We are very, very, very mindful of what’s happening.

QUESTION: And my second question on –


QUESTION: The Government of Pakistan really keeps how it conducts the war on terror from the public. Doesn’t this fuel the kind anti-American sentiment in Pakistan?


QUESTION: So have you spoken to the Government of Pakistan to ensure that people have access to the war policy of the government so that there’s no anti-Americanism?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yeah. We did. I spent a fair amount of my time there also meeting with Pakistani military officials about some of our concerns, for example, about extrajudicial killings. And one of the things that I urged was that we have a more open discussion about what military policies are, what some of the challenges are, including the challenge of impunity. Those are issues, as you say, that the military is not keen to have in the public domain. There was a video that was done about a year ago, and I raised that, and I’m quite clear that the government was not eager for that to be widely debated in the Pakistani press. But we’ve said to them it’s better to have the issue out in the open; let’s discuss where things are. It will actually defuse the tension rather than raising it. But we’ve got some work to do on that.

MODERATOR: Before we go onto the next question, let’s just try to keep them short, and just one question per person for right now, and then we’ll cycle back through again. And I want to flag our Chinese colleagues. Qin why don’t you take the next –

QUESTION: Hello, I’m Qin Liwen from the Modern Media Group. American officials have gone to Beijing to discuss the human rights dialogue. Do you – have you talked about (inaudible) or what kind of response have you got from Chinese officials?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yes. Well, it was – I was there a week. I got back Friday night, and I did a press briefing on Thursday and expressed – and I will again to you – some frustration about the deterioration of the human rights situation. We did talk about press freedom. We talked about the – also the problems of lawyers, of artists like Ai Weiwei, of human rights advocates, anybody at this point, and especially since the Jasmine – people called for a solidarity demonstration with the Jasmine Revolutions in the Middle East, there really has been a rapid deterioration and a lessening of tolerance for an open debate. That was the general them of our discussion, I would say. We raised a number of specific cases. We also were quite concerned about some of the attacks, both against Chinese journalists but also against some of the foreign journalists, a number of whom were detained in late February, nine or ten of them beaten up.

So it’s a very – I would say – I mean, you know better than I, but it’s a very tough climate now. And I think it’s important for us to keep raising these issues, but it’s certainly a – it’s not an easy subject and it’s – I think it’s at this point a real impediment to the relationship between the United States and China. We have lots of other interests, but the human rights issue looms much larger now than it did a year ago.

QUESTION: Can I ask a question, whether such dialogue really works?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I think it’s important in two ways. One, it allows us to get a better sense of what the Chinese Government’s thinking. We did raise at least one case of a lawyer, a Dr. Teng Baio, who was released on Friday. So – another one was arrested, so it’s – there’s a give and take. It’s not – it – we’re constantly struggling because there are so many cases. But I think it’s also important for Chinese citizens, for people in China to know, especially those that are on the front line, that we’re, paying attention, we’re raising these things privately, and we’re raising them publicly.

QUESTION: My name is Kadri Gursel of Turkish newspaper Milliyet Daily. Why this country Turkey? Why are the journalists from Turkey selected for US programs like this FPC tour? What is the common denominator for being selected for this part of schedule, this tour? And especially for my country, it will be a hypothetic question, but excuse me for this. If you would do this organization [FPC tour] two years ago, three years ago, would you choose Turkey? Would you choose to invite the journalists from Turkey?

Maybe one more question about the software. Whose idea is this? Is this an idea coming from the State Department? And then who’s financed? Or will it be – will this emergency, I think, be marketed? Is it a market-oriented issue? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: On the first questions, I’m just the speaker. I don’t know – (laughter) – how you all got here.

MODERATOR: Well, after spending half a day with all these journos, I’m beginning to wonder how we picked you, too. But that’s neither here nor there. (Laughter.) But succinctly, what happens in Washington, to select candidates for an FPC tour, we put out cables to all our embassies and consulates around the world, and we say please give us some suggestions for our tour, reporters who focus on human rights and press freedom. Posts send in all their nominations, and we’ve had about 70 or 80. And then we try to winnow it down. We want to make sure each region of the world has equal representation.

But I think what you’re alluding to; we do look at countries where press freedom is not as valued as it is in some other places. So that’s one of our selection factors. And then all of your social media skills, too, because that’s the way the press technology is going, is a decision factor.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: On the panic button or the other technologies, what we’ve done essentially is to say there’s now a cat-and-mouse game between governments and activists and journalists. And so let’s identify the problem and try to put some of the best technology people to work to figure out how do you respond to the problem. We’re funding, we’re providing kind of seed grants or support so that these technologists can help us figure out how to deal with the problem. People said to us, “We’re now in a defensive mode. Mobile phones are a big piece of the way people communicate, and when you get arrested, they take my names. People don’t know I’ve been arrested.” So we’ve gone to the technologists and said, “How do you respond?” And somebody came up with the panic button.

MODERATOR: Okay. We have time for about two more questions, and I see Lamia. Let’s go with her first, and we’ll go from there. Let’s go.

QUESTION: Hi. My name is Lamia Mrini. I’m from Morocco. I work for 2M TV/Radio, an English language service. I wanted to touch again on the question that Hani had presented regarding the use of journalists and NGOs in some areas. For example, on press freedom, were these reports that their – the sources you getting your information from. In some countries, there are a little bit – they are very conservative regarding detention information and the transparency issues and so on. So who do you work with? If it’s NGOs, how do you rely on the accuracy of the information?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: This is – it’s the most important question for us because in some societies – yours would be an example – the NGO movement is relatively recent and relatively small. There’s one NGO in particular that we’re in touch with, but there’s others clearly outside of formal organizations that have information. But there are risks associated with coming forward and telling us. And so we try to be, one, very mindful of the risks, but at the same time trying to reach as broad a group as possible to get the information we need. And it’s very uneven. In some places, information is in abundance, there’s lots of sources. In some places, it’s relatively more difficult. And our task is just to try to do the best we can, have as many sources as we can, and to provide as much information as we can reliably say is based on fact.

I know that isn’t an answer that is going to satisfy, but I think it is – it’s the reality of the world that we have some places – your country would be an example – where we have more challenges in collecting the information.

MODERATOR: I see Abeer up front.

QUESTION: Abeer Jaafar working for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

ASSISTANT SECRETRY POSNER: You do some great work.

QUESTION: Thank you. In terms of the journalists in danger, I would like to ask you what kind of challenges have you recognized? For instance, first, the freedom in Iraq and what are the solutions – are the available solutions to the problem?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I think Iraq is an example – I mean, it’s not the only one, but where there is violence, where there’s a war, where there’s fighting, journalists are caught in the middle of that. And so for the last several years, there’s been a considerable amount of physical attacks against journalists. Again, there is no simple answer to how to deal with that. Obviously, the extent to which democratic order takes place, violence subsides, it’ll make it easier for journalists to operate. But that’s been as – I think – I don’t know the CPJ statistics, but in the last several years Iraq has been among the countries where journalists have the most physical threats because of the violence occurring there, and that’s obviously something we’re very mindful of.

MODERATOR: Abeer, we’ll come back. I see – we haven’t asked any of our African colleagues a question, and I’m leaning towards my Cameroonian colleague.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Nsom Kini. I work for The Post newspaper in Cameroon. You talked about 4,000 lawsuits against journalists. And we know that many of these lawsuits are happening in countries that – where there is no independence of the judiciary, that the courts are the big employer, the big money. What particularly are you doing about this?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yeah. I mean, that’s a much larger challenge for us. A lot of the – our effort in Cameroon and Africa and other parts of the world are to try to reinforce the notion of an independent judiciary and the rule of law. It is an essential building block for everything, and it’s not just cases against journalists but it’s a range of cases, particularly in politically charged situations where the courts become basically a tool of the government. And so, we are putting both money and diplomatic attention to trying to encourage independent courts, independent judges, and strong legal representation. Again, one of the issues in many, many countries is that lawyers who take unpopular cases or clients find themselves getting in trouble. So this is a building block. Again, we talk about sustainable democracy. Independent judiciary, rule of law, is a key ingredient, and everything else, in effect, depends on them.

MODERATOR: Well, Assistant Secretary Posner, thank you very much. We really appreciate your taking time from your busy schedule to be with us.


MODERATOR: That concludes this part of the briefing.

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