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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Pressing for Freedom: The State of Digital and Media Repression Worldwide 2013

Tara Sonenshine
   Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Uzra Zeya
   Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Moderated by Elisa Massimino, President and CEO of Human Rights First
Washington, DC
April 25, 2013

2:30 P.M. EST


MODERATOR: Good afternoon. Welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. We’re pleased that you could join us for today’s program. Before we begin, I would like to take this opportunity to thank my colleagues in the Bureau of Public Affairs; the Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Affairs; the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy; and our colleagues from Human Rights First for all of your hard work in preparation for this program.

We will begin today’s session with comments from the President and CEO of Human Rights First, Elisa Massimino, followed by remarks by Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy Tara Sonenshine, and Acting Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Affairs Uzra Zeya. These comments will be followed by a moderated discussion led by President Massimino. During the question-and-answer period, once the moderator has called on you, please wait for a microphone to be passed to you, state your name and organization, and then ask your question.

Again, thank you for attending this afternoon’s event.

Ms. MASSIMINO: Thank you all for being here, and welcome. Welcome to those of you here and also to those of you who are joining us on Livestream. We are here today to mark the lead-up to World Press Freedom Day, which was started by UNESCO 20 years ago. This year, Costa Rica will host the UNESCO celebration on May 3rd, a week from tomorrow. Last year, Under Secretary of State Tara Sonenshine launched the Free the Press campaign right here at the Foreign Press Center, in part to focus attention on the critical importance of media freedom and to underscore the importance of keeping that front and center not just on one day of the year but every day.

Because media freedom can best be advanced by partnerships between government and civil society groups, this year Human Rights First is delighted to join with the State Department in hosting this event. Human Rights First has a long record of defending free expression. Since our founding, we have helped arrange pro bono legal counsel and other assistance for more than 150 media people who have found themselves in the United States and unable to return safely to their home countries.

We hear, in our work, increasingly about people being persecuted and even prosecuted, not only for what they report but even for what they text or tweet or post on microblogs. And we see this kind of digital repression spreading from country to country. We believe, at Human Rights First, the role of U.S. leadership in drawing attention to these issues is critical.

Since our time today is brief, I’d like first to introduce our State Department colleagues, and then we’ll be taking questions both from the people in this audience and from those joining us via Livestream from around the world.

So first, it’s my honor to introduce Tara Sonenshine, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. As many of you know, she had a distinguished career as a journalist before entering government, and she has a shelf full of Emmys to prove it. She then served in the Clinton Administration and was Executive Vice President at the U.S. Institute of Peace. She was sworn in as Under Secretary just about a year ago. She’s since been traveling the world and has been an incredibly articulate spokesperson for human rights, universal values, and principled American leadership.

You’ll also be hearing from Uzra Zeya, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Uzra joined the Foreign Service in the 1990s and has represented our country around the world from Paris to Damascus, from Cairo to New Delhi, and lots of places in between. She has been on the front lines of diplomacy and democratic transitions for decades, and we are so lucky that she’s in charge of human rights and media freedom policy at such a critical moment in our history.

So please join me now in welcoming Under Secretary of State Tara Sonenshine. (Applause.)

UNDER SECRETARY SONENSHINE: Well, thank you, Elisa. And thank you also, Belinda, and Dick, the Foreign Press Center, and my colleagues.

So this is our 20th celebration of World Press Freedom Day, and as mentioned, the second year of highlighting journalists and the restrictions on freedom of expression, through the Free the Press Campaign. And in addition to joining today with my colleague from the State Department, our Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, I also want to thank Human Rights First for the hard work they do. They hold governments accountable for universal rights and freedoms, including our own government.

I’m also somewhat of jealous of Human Rights First for now having Sonni Efron working here, or with Human Rights First, instead of at the State Department. She has been a champion, a crusader, and a wonderful friend and colleague. But working together, these two organizations, State and Human Rights First, should tell you something about the cooperation and the interaction between NGOs and media that is needed if we’re going to work toward shared goals.

The United States of America, built on freedom of expression. It was one of our first breaths of life as a nation, an indispensable, enduring element of who we were and who we are. And so today I remind you of the fundamental freedom for all enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Media freedom is a key part of that, whether it comes from what we say in a public square or what we type on our keyboards. Online, print, blogs, text, tweets, information is the moral equivalent of oxygen. Information is how a free, healthy, vibrant and functioning society breathes. It is essential to building civil societies. And without it, aspirations are choked, economies suffocated, countries unable to grow.

Some governments are just too weak or unwilling to protect journalists and media outlets. Others exploit or create criminal libel or defamation or blasphemy laws in their favor. Some misuse terrorism laws to prosecute and imprison journalists. They pressure media outlets to shut down by causing crippling financial damage, or they buy or nationalize media outlets, suppressing viewpoints. They filter or shut down access to the internet, detain, harass, and worse.

I remind you that according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, nearly 600 journalists have been murdered with impunity since 1992. And last year, 2012, the deadliest of all for journalists since the organization began keeping records. As we meet here today, almost 250 journalists languish in prisons worldwide. They are incarcerated simply for doing their work, reporting to all of us on what is going on in their own communities and in the world. Last year, over 45 individuals wrongly imprisoned in Iran.

Even in countries that are moving overall towards democratic consolidation, there remain places where journalists can be threatened and imprisoned for their work. This year, for instance, 49 journalists are in Turkish jails, more than in those of any other individual country. And in Pakistan, even though the size and scope of its media has dramatically expanded over the past decade, members of the press still face pressure to self-censor or restrict coverage of sensitive issues. Security forces, political parties, militants, and other groups routinely in the world today harass and threaten journalists, and the harassment can and does extend at times to real violence.

Reporters Without Borders counts 10 journalists killed, two imprisoned in 2012 alone, scores threatened, abducted; some survive violent attacks. So today we urge all people, members of news organizations, civil society, think tank institutions, political leaders, scholars, and citizens of every faith and ethnicity to call for accountability. Demand that governments enforce human rights that protect journalists and their fundamental freedoms - Shine a light on longstanding and emerging repressive restrictions on and threats to freedom of expression, whether they are through traditional media or online.

So as we did last year, we are highlighting individual cases for a two-week period leading up to May 3rd’s World Press Freedom Day. And we started Monday with a case in South Sudan Tuesday a case in Cuba, yesterday a journalist in China. And today we are highlighting one from Iran – Zhila Bani-Yaghoub. The editor of the Focus on Iranian Women website, she has been jailed for one year at Evin Prison for articles she wrote during the 2009 presidential election. Her charge, and I quote: “spreading propaganda against the system,” unquote, and, I quote, “insulting the president.” She’s been banned from practicing journalism for 30 years.

Previously, she has been tried and acquitted on similar charges three times since 2009. And as I mentioned, Iran has jailed 45 journalists since 2012, and we are calling on the government to protect the right of media freedom for all its citizens. So if you would look on our Virtual Embassy Tehran page, you will see “Faces of Iran,” a site that highlights citizens imprisoned for religious or political beliefs.

We must be vigilant. Last year, the Assad regime arrested and tortured Mazen Darwish, a prominent Alawite, activist, and journalist. His whereabouts today are unknown. Across the region, we are concerned that several Gulf parliaments are considering draft legislation that would authorize extended prison sentences and large fines for those who criticize their leaders.

But I also today do want to recognize steps in the right direction. For example, the parliament in Turkey did recently enact judicial reforms which decriminalize nonviolent expression. And that may lead to the release of some of those currently imprisoned for journalism. And in Burma, privately owned daily newspapers have returned for the first time since the 1960s.

So let me close by saying that the U.S. Government continues to fund programs to provide media organizations and journalists with tools and resources to produce high-quality stories without fear of retribution. We will soon be building safety training facilities in El Salvador, Nairobi, and Georgia. Trainings and exchanges to the U.S. include the Edward R. Murrow program, the Foreign Press Center program for visiting journalists from around the world, to begin again later this month. And we remain committed to supporting technological innovations that expand the space for freedom of expression, opportunities for citizens around the world to speak out and stand up for human rights. And so we call upon the international community to join us in this and other commitments and in addressing undue restrictions, attacks, threats to press freedom worldwide, and not just during this campaign, and not just on World Press Freedom Day, but every day.

Thank you. And I would now like to introduce our acting Assistant Secretary of State for DRL, and I turn it over to Uzra. (Applause.)

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY. ZEYA: Thank you so much, Tara and Elisa. I’m really delighted to join you all today to discuss the threats to freedom of expression around the world. It’s a topic that the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor works on with NGOs, with journalists, governance, each and every day of the year. And like all of you, we believe that every day should be World Press Freedom Day.

As Under Secretary Sonenshine mentioned, we are citing individual cases daily, and you can see those cases on But the fact is that journalists face challenges everywhere, from the Middle East to South America and from Africa to Europe to Asia. There aren’t enough days in the year to list them all.

In China, for example, the government has stepped up harassment of foreign journalists, selectively delaying the renewal of visas. It continues to repress journalists by monitoring internet use, controlling content, blocking access to foreign and domestic websites, and punishing those deemed to run afoul of political sensitivities.

We continue to be extremely concerned about threats to freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. Last week, we condemned an attack made against the Uthayan newspaper, which was just one of many attacks against this outlet and other media organizations. We urge Sri Lankan authorities to conduct a credible investigation into the matter and to hold perpetrators accountable.

What we do to advance media freedom on a daily basis is fourfold. First, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor works actively to engage governments both publicly and privately on issues of major concern. This includes addressing specific cases of imprisoned journalists, new legislation that restricts certain types of expression and existing legal framework that sanction the locking-up of journalists in the name of security. We remind governments that allowing free expression increases rather than diminishes their chances of long-term stability and prosperity. And as we did with the Government of Sri Lanka, we encourage other countries to stand with those journalists brave enough to speak out against corruption, authoritarianism, and other threats to a free society.

Secondly, we work in multilateral forums to hold governments accountable to their human rights obligations, including those specified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This includes supporting UN resolutions on freedom of expression, like the Human Rights Council resolution on safety for journalists from last September, and the resolution on internet freedom from last June. We also work to ensure that UN resolutions dealing with issues like religious tolerance also include protections for freedom of expression, including for the media. And we convey our concerns about press freedoms in various countries through statements, country-specific resolutions, and the universal periodic review process.

Third, as Under Secretary Sonenshine noted, it is a priority for the State Department to support media freedom through foreign assistance. On its part, DRL funds programs in more than 40 countries that build the capacity for media actors to effectively investigate and report in restrictive and dangerous environments. Our internet freedom programs support technologies that enable citizen-journalists and activists to report on human rights developments and to protect themselves from threats both online and offline. These tools give bloggers access to the web when they would otherwise be shut off from the rest of the world. I’m proud to note that the Bureau will soon launch hubs in Georgia, Kenya, and El Salvador dedicated to providing training on digital and physical safety and emotional self-care to journalists in those regions. And since 2007, DRL has provided more than $1 million in assistance for investigative journalists and bloggers and other media professionals who are under threat.

Finally, we speak directly with civil society, with NGOs and journalists, to gain a fuller picture of the situation on the ground. And we encourage our embassies and consulates in the field to do the same.

So with this brief overview of how we support media freedom on a daily basis, I’d like to open the floor and hear from you with your thoughts and questions. (Applause.)

(Audio break.)

Ms. MASSIMINO: Okay. There we go. So we can see you, and now you can hear us. We’re going to go ahead and open it right up to the floor. I have lots of questions myself, but we want to hear from you, too, and first. So if anyone has a question, just raise your hand, please, then wait for the mike and identify yourself.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Kitty Wang. I’m working with NTD-TV. It’s an independent media here in the United States, but we have global-wide coverage as well. So my question is: Just now, Assistant Secretary, you mentioned about China. The situation there is very bad. But one thing is that the Chinese Communist regime keep on jamming the broadcasting of foreign media, and they even put a great pressure on those like satellite companies who’s carrying the signals of independent medias to broadcast to China. So I’m wondering, and in your opinion, at the government level, what can you do to help such independent media to broadcast to – the information to China? Thank you.

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Right. I think that’s an excellent question, and I would say that with respect to media freedom, the free flow of ideas means flow of ideas across borders, and I think it’s a very important facet of our diplomacy supporting media freedom that we continue to support its continuation. So through our own efforts, through things like the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which Under Secretary Sonenshine can speak to in more detail, I think it’s absolutely an integral element of our overall approach.

UNDER SECRETARY SONENSHINE: So I would only add that we urge, whenever we are meeting with the Chinese either in bilateral or multilateral fora, we raise the internet restrictions issue as well as any freedom of the press issues. And this notion of independent media, we keep making the point, not just vis-a-vis China, but everywhere: Independent media is one of the legs of the stools for civil society. You cannot really have full civil society without freedom of expression and freedom of the press. So at every possible turn and corner, we make that case and we make it vigorously and robustly.

Ms. MASSIMINO: And this is – I would just add this is an issue both for Chinese media, journalists, but also for American media companies and others, as we have a global economy, we have global challenges, whether it’s the environment, counterterrorism. And what Assistant Secretary Zeya said about freedom of expression and media freedom being important across borders, I think that’s especially true when you think about the global issues that a free press helps societies tackle. So whether it’s Bloomberg’s challenges – in some countries the most dangerous beat for a journalist is the war reporter. But in a lot of countries, it’s the corruption reporter or the crime reporter. And that’s something I think we have to focus on. And it’s true for a lot of the countries that the State Department is highlighting during this lead-up to World Press Freedom Day. Another question here in front.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Andrei Sitov. I’m a Russian reporter with TASS here in Washington, D.C. Thank you, ladies, for doing this, and thanks to our friends at the FPC for hosting this. I had a technical question. You mentioned this hub Georgia, which was news to me. Please describe in more detail what the hub will be doing when it’s supposed to be opening, how large the scope of it is, sort of just describe the project please.

And then I also wanted to ask you about this recent case of the Twitter account of the AP being hacked by the Syrians. You worked in Damascus, which is interesting. I understand this is not journalism, but it does raise the issue of accuracy, responsibility, fairness, and all of that. And my question in the very, very general form is about the abuse of media freedoms, which is possible and which is almost never mentioned. In fact, when I did ask a question about that, I was censored by my colleagues here for raising the issue. But it’s a real issue. It was later actually raised by the President himself here.

So anyways, please comment on that specific case, the Twitter account hacked, and then in general on the issue of the possibility of abuse of freedoms on the – especially in this age of the internet. Thank you.

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Just to answer your first question on the hubs, this is an exciting new project that we’re launching again to emphasize in Georgia, Kenya, and El Salvador. And we will be having the launch of the El Salvador hub next week. We’ve seen in Central America a very disturbing trend of increased acts of intimidation and violence and even killings of journalists, of brave individuals who are seeking to expose the realities of their society. So we’re very keen to help provide support in terms of sharing best practices with respect to both digital and physical safety, with safety in conflict environments. And we think that it’s very important, obviously, to preserve the independence of journalists, but what we are concerned with is their well-being and their ability to continue their work. So that’s the spirit of this project and what we have in mind, so it’s – the hub activity will be largely training-focused.

QUESTION: And when will the Georgia one be operational?

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: I would have to get you more information on that, but we can get back to you with some more specifics, okay?

Thank you.

UNDER SECRETARY SONENSHINE: On Georgia, Andrei, I would only add, I was just in Georgia looking at the independent media sector, met with RFE/RL journalists and others. And it’s very interesting to see the growth of independent media in Georgia.

On abuse, I’m asked this a lot, and firstly, I can’t imagine someone being abused for asking about abuse. Doesn’t seem fair or right that you should not be able to express or question whether these freedoms can go too far and what happens if you run afoul of them. We do have laws in this country that you can run afoul of. There are crimes that are, as you know – can be legislated in a court. We just tend to argue for due process on those kinds of situations. Is this a cause and effect, a crime and incitement, a hate crime. But we certainly don’t advocate abuses of those freedoms in ways that would run afoul of the law. We just happen to come at it from the fundamental universal principles, from a sort of global standard that in the end, freedom of expression is better than closing down expression. So I think that’s the philosophy that undergirds our approach.

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: And I would just add on that to make a distinction between hate crimes or acts of violence and hateful speech. Our view is that the appropriate response to offensive speech is more free speech; it’s not repression.

QUESTION: Okay. But again, from Boston we know that these young people were radicalized by some internet publications, actually learned to make the bombs from an online publication by al-Qaida. In your opinion, should those exist? I am a journalist. I know where you’re coming from; I support the general principle. But as a person, I am against that sort of freedom. I do believe that freedom can be used for the good and for the bad, and there are obvious examples like that. But I want to hear what you think.

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Yeah, I can understand. Mm-hmm. Let me jump in also on that, because I – we see across the spectrum, just as you described, constraints on speech that are perhaps initially intended to be narrow but then can be abused to go after legitimate free speech by governments that either want to hide corruption or crack down on political dissent. But in this country – and I think we strike a good balance here, erring on the side of the jumping into the marketplace of ideas, that’s a fundamental principle of this country, where we try to advance free expression, free speech by encouraging a lot of voices. But as you heard here, and I think it’s perfectly legitimate to find that line where incitement to violence is – that’s a very clear line, and I think we have to have that. And I don’t want to opine on any particular publications that I haven’t seen, but clearly if there’s someone using the free press --

QUESTION: To teach how to make bombs.

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: -- to teach – well, and to incite people to take action. I mean, this is something that we saw in Rwanda, where the media was a very important tool in mobilizing people to commit genocide. And that’s the dark side of media freedom that we have to always be paying attention to. But by far what you see more of across the globe is the use of, as you already heard, criminal statutes that are ostensibly directed at blasphemy or counterterrorism that are so vague and flexible that they can be used to go after legitimate dissent, shut down legitimate media, and narrow the marketplace of ideas, if you will, in a way that undercuts all of civil society, as Tara mentioned. And I think we have to really be on guard. The cases that we’re highlighting and that the State Department is highlighting today and in the lead-up to World Press Freedom Day, there are a lot of examples of people who are put into the criminal justice system because of their exercise of legitimate and free speech.

Do we have another question in the room? Yes.

QUESTION: Hi, I’m Jill Craig from Voice of America, and I just returned from about a two-and-a-half year stint in Nairobi. And I’m sure offices are aware, the last presidential election was quite interesting. And what I saw there was that they are cracking down on foreign media now, and that has a very chilling effect on the local media as well. And I’m just wondering if – I just want to know what your offices are doing to sort of monitor and take action with that, not just with Keya. I know in South Africa with the current secrecy act that’s being debated and then other countries around the world, like what’s being done to sort of make sure that the countries that traditionally have at least been tolerant of media are now sort of going the opposite direction. Thank you.

UNDER SECRETARY SONENSHINE: One thing we continue to do are these media exchanges. And when you take journalists from one country and put them in local American newsrooms for a while, and you take American journalists and you put them in overseas – and people here are smiling because most of you are probably recipients or beneficiaries of these exchange programs – I think part of it is that you can’t always explain to a journalist as much as you can let them experience what it’s like to cover a story locally, nationally, globally. And I keep finding that these getting-in-one-another’s-shoes examples – and I think we have to do more on the African continent, frankly, of those kinds of journalist exchanges – you need to professionalize the field everywhere. You need ethical standards and training, and you need that cross-cultural conversation. We as American journalists don’t have every right answer. We are not always the perfect models. And I think the models keep changing – radio, print, internet convergence, online bloggers, tweets. We’re all learning in this sort of new information world. But I do think the exchange of experiences and the kind of training hub that DRL is talking about could be very useful.

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: And I would just add on top of that, I mean, I refer to my remarks to difficulties international journalists have had renewing visas in China. And certainly, we are very vigilant to looking at domestic journalists under threat in their home countries, but I would underline the importance of international journalism in terms of – as exactly as Tara said – getting the full picture of what’s happening and giving – ensuring that kind of access is quite important, we think, for protecting media freedom worldwide.

QUESTION: And I guess – I mean, I guess my underlying question is: Is any work being done directly with the governments? Can anything be done to encourage the governments to say, hey, we’re not going to crack down on – I mean, that we’re not going to make sure that you can’t get your work visa?

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: I mean, across the globe, I mean, it’s part of our diplomatic engagement. It’s part of the ongoing conversations that our ambassadors and diplomats in the field have with host governments in terms of trying to push forward and encourage, again, the idea that opening a free flow of ideas actually enhances long-term stability.

UNDER SECRETARY SONENSNINE: Let me give you a very specific answer. Tomorrow I will leave for Ethiopia, and on that trip I will see government information ministries and people in charge of information. And you can be sure I will be making the case to them as to why restrictions on press would not be the best solution for economically strained countries that are trying to develop their resources and trying to engage globally. So that is precisely the kind of conversations, and then going outside to meet with the editors and publishers in Ethiopia to hear their perspective. So I think we do actually go out very specifically to talk to governments and journalists about our approach to the issues.

Ms. MASSIMINO: You should say the same thing to the information minister in Bahrain. When I met with her a couple of months ago, several months ago, she raised this question similar to what you raised about the responsibility in media and how do you make sure that the media – I think there’s one now functioning opposition newspaper there – and her brilliant idea to make sure was to establish – have the King establish a committee that would vet every article that would be published in the paper to make sure that it was responsible and didn’t abuse press freedoms. So there’s a lot of work to be done.

I think also that part of the effort that the State Department and the government, U.S. Government more broadly, has been doing admirably is pushing to get accountability in cases where journalists have been killed or imprisoned unjustly. And that’s one of those issues that is – talk about paying attention to this not just on one day but on every day. There are examples in Russia, in most of the countries that you’ve heard from – about today, in Cuba, where journalists are – either have disappeared and we don’t know what’s happened to them or they’ve been effectively disappeared into jails and unjustly convicted of crimes, whether they’re under the blasphemy laws or the counterterrorism laws. And that’s something that we all have to be focused on is the list of cases in which there is effectively impunity for attacks against journalists is quite long.

I think I saw that we have a question from the Livestream.

QUESTION: Sonni Efron with Human Rights First. This is a question from our Livestream feed. The questioner does not say what country. Question: The State Department recently issued guiding principles for human rights defenders. How are these applied to journalists and activists at risk?

PARTICIPANT: That’s a great question.

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: That is a great question, and thank you for promoting the Department’s efforts. We do have a basic – a fact sheet that we issued in the last couple of months just reaffirming our global policies in terms of supporting human rights defenders worldwide, supporting civil society. And we view journalists absolutely as an essential element of civil society and an essential element to successful, healthy, functioning democracies.

So what that means is some of what we’ve been discussing already. It means talking directly to journalists, talking directly to NGO representatives, getting a better appreciation of the human rights situation on the ground, reflecting those concerns in our public statements. Probably the most well-known public reference are the Annual Human Rights Reports which we publish, we just released last week, which are a compendium of information from multiple sources but including journalists who are quite often the most informed and the most well-versed in the actual human rights situation country to country.

So it’s a vital part of our engagement, but it’s also part of our diplomatic engagement where we see violations of freedom of expression, attacks against journalists taking place. And I think it’s just an essential part of what we do.

Ms. MASSIMINO: And I wanted to say a special thanks for all of the work that you did to get those guidelines out. What we hear from our colleagues around the world is that it often is confusing for civil society, particularly those under threat, to know what they can be looking to the U.S. embassies and the U.S. Government representatives for in terms of protection and information. And so it’s very helpful to have a set of guidelines that we can share with them that reflect the views of the U.S. Government on what they can – how they can be in partnership.

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Right. And every U.S. embassy in the world has a public affairs section with information officers who liaise directly with the journalist community, and it’s a vital part of what we do.

Ms. MASSIMINO: I think I saw a question in the back. Yes.

QUESTION: Hello. My name is Rahim Rashidi. I am reporter for Kurdistan TV. My question is: What is your opinion on human rights of Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq?

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Well, thank you for your question. With respect to our topic today on world press freedom and the situation for journalists, we have a number of concerns with the overall situation in Iraq. The information for last year’s Human Rights Report, we had five journalists reported killed in Iraq, but hundreds of cases of harassment of journalists in Iraq proper and also in the Iraqi Kurdistan region.

So again, I think Iraq is a perfect example where the – a free media and a media reporting on the situation and the human rights situation in particular as it takes place is really vital to the country moving forward. And we’d like to see more attention to harassment and particular acts of intimidation and violence against journalists – accountability in those cases so Iraqi media can continue to flourish.

UNDER SECRETARY SONENSHINE: And I would only add, as journalists, I think all of you know how important it is to focus as countries go through the transition from military to civilian life that often, without the military there, sometimes the networks, in terms of the U.S., aren’t in Iraq reporting. And sometimes you’ve left behind a local indigenous press that isn’t fully developed and isn’t fully able to exercise what it would like to do either. And I do think it’s important to cover that story because we’re not always going to be every place, but mobile phones are every place, and independent media can and should be local, indigenously reporting. But I do think we have to watch as these societies transition to make sure that we haven’t lost sight of their media needs.

Ms. MASSIMINO: Do we have any more questions in this room?

QUESTION: Different subject.


QUESTION: Thank you. I just remembered the other question to Under Secretary Sonenshine. When I think in one of your first presentations here you mentioned the idea of maybe helping countries to teach their press secretaries to talk to the media. Have there been any takers?

UNDER SECRETARY SONENSHINE: It’s very interesting. A year ago – Andrei is correct – I mentioned that I think training of government officials – and we are doing some of that, and I will let our Acting Assistant Secretary comment on specifically – but I have pushed this a number of times. And we are actually – and I see a lot of press secretaries coming through now asking what is public diplomacy, how did you manage the transition from the reporting side to the other side of the podium, is that allowed? So this has come up again and again, and I know I’ve seen many press spokeswomen and spokesmen who are very interested in training about how to interface with their own press corps.

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Our own efforts tend to be more focused on the journalists and the bloggers themselves, but I think it’s a very important compliment to have government officials who are well-versed and have the best practices to share as well.

QUESTION: So is there anything – is there a problem?

UNDER SECRETARY SONENSHINE: I think we can look, and we will make sure to check. I think there actually is a concrete program, but I want to make sure that the training is active and not a one-time conference or a one-time project as opposed to what I think we were talking about, a continuing exposure.

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: We can take the question.

UNDER SECRETARY SONENSHINE: So we’ll come back to you on that.

Ms. MASSIMINO: Okay. I think it looks like we have one last question and it’s from the Livestream.

QUESTION: Okay. This is from (inaudible). Thank you. A question from Maria Nunez from American University: As you likely know, there have been multiple violent deaths in Mexico against journalists reporting on the cartels. What do you suggest to these activists in terms of protection? Is it better to stop reporting for their own safety?

PARTICIPANT: Well – go ahead, please.

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: I’m glad you raised that issue, because I think the situation of journalists in Mexico and the acts of violence, the killings and intimidation, is something we’ve highlighted in our Human Rights Report, and it’s part of our bilateral dialogue with Mexico, where we just had a bilateral human rights dialogue last March.

We have seen some positive movement, I think, over the past year, where last year the government announced it’s setting up what it’s calling a protective mechanism in coordination with journalists country-wide as well as human rights defenders to basically have better coordination on safety and accountability for these issues. We’d like to see this proceed with implementation, but we very much want to see this situation addressed so these journalists can continue their very important work. That’s the bottom line.

UNDER SECRETARY SONENSHINE: I would only add that investigative reporting is one of the most difficult and dangerous but critical parts of journalism. And to be an investigative reporter looking at whether it’s drug cartels or corruption or anything else is difficult and often expensive because you’re working on a story for a very long time. And I do think we have to ensure that that kind of investigative reporting is supported and encouraged and that it can be done without harm, physically, to those who are carrying it out.

Ms. MASSIMINO: Yes. I would just second that and say that in Mexico in particular, this kind of censorship by cartel is incredibly dangerous to the individuals who are trying to do this reporting but to the broader society as well. We talk on the positive side about the free press as a pillar of civil society, and without it, really, particularly in a situation like Mexico now with the extreme violence of the criminal networks, a free press is – can be one of the bulwarks to seize back control from these criminal networks. And so that’s incredibly important and pushing very hard, which I hope Secretary Kerry will do when he visits Mexico, for accountability in these cases of beheadings of bloggers and bombings of newspapers. This is credibly important for the U.S. to exercise leadership there and assistance.

Thank you. So we’ve tackled some very important issues today, and I want to reiterate my thanks to our colleagues from the State Department and really my appreciation not just for their partnership in today’s program but for their leadership on this important issue, and their partnership with so many of us working in civil society here to advance human rights and American global leadership on human rights every day. Thank you all for joining us.

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