Washington — “Media freedom is the moral equivalent of oxygen; it is how society breathes and it is a key pillar of building civil societies,” says Tara Sonenshine, the new U.S. under secretary of state for public diplomacy.
Sonenshine, who has worked as a journalist, said she has seen the occupational hazards journalists must face. When the free flow of news and information is cut off, she said, “societies suffer. Economies suffer. Individuals suffer.”
Sonenshine joined Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, for a special briefing April 18 at the Foreign Press Center in Washington to discuss the “Free the Press” campaign in the run-up to World Press Freedom Day on May 3.
The “Free the Press” campaign focuses on the many ways in which journalists around the world are under duress, ranging from laws restricting freedom of expression on the Internet, to intimidation, threats and fines, to mysterious and frightening “disappearances.”
Posner noted that the Committee to Protect Journalists — an independent organization devoted to defending journalists — reports that the number of journalists detained in the last 11 years has actually increased, from 118 journalists in 2001 to 179 imprisoned today. In 2012 alone, 17 journalists have been killed, according to the committee.
Responding to questions from reporters in Washington representing international media as well as reporters in Africa and New York City who were connected by phone, Sonenshine acknowledged that traditional news media, under pressure from social media and the Internet, are finding it difficult to develop a sustainable economic model to stay in business. But in the search for economic support, she said, media should not be subject to corporate or government interference.
“Government’s role is as a convener,” Sonenshine said. “We do want to convene and listen to one another about what will enable print, radio, online, new PDA [personal digital assistant] newscasts to survive and thrive so that we have the best in journalism.”
Sonenshine and Posner emphasized that standards for freedom of expression and for free and independent media are defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and apply to all governments worldwide.
Free media are also essential for the economic development of a nation, Posner said.
“I think for many years we had a somewhat false debate about the relationship between civil and political rights and economic and social rights,” Posner said. “The reality is that those rights are indivisible.”
Countries trying to build stronger economies need transparency and public debate about economic choices and policies, he said. “Journalistic freedom and freedom of expression enhance the abilities of governments and countries to enjoy economic prosperity and strength,” Posner said.