Remarks at World Press Freedom Day

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
National Press Club
Washington, DC
May 2, 2011

Thank you, Mark [Hamrick, President of National Press Club], for your kind introduction. On behalf of Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton and the United States, I would like to thank UNESCO for hosting this important event yesterday at the Newseum and today at the National Press Club.

UNESCO’s commitment to press freedom and freedom of expression, demonstrated here with World Press Freedom Day—are a consistent inspiration to governments and civil society around the world. I want to recognize the United States’ Ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, with whom it has been a pleasure to work, as well as the dozens of members of the Diplomatic Corps, who honor press freedom with their presence here today.

Today we recognize the ongoing struggle of journalists across the globe who underwrite the strength of democracy. By keeping the public informed and officials accountable, the role of an active, vibrant media is crucial in the pursuit of responsive governance. And today, we recognize one man who has embraced his duty as a journalist despite oppressive circumstances—our 2011 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom prize winner, Mr. Ahmad Zeidabadi of Iran.

Through his courageous work, Ahmad represents the scores of civil society actors who are using connection technologies to speak out for democracy, human rights and accountability. The growth and prevalence of new technologies is transforming the way citizens worldwide relate to one another and to their governments. Like Ahmad, thousands of journalists and bloggers are forming the front lines of democratic movements for change—from the Middle East to Latin America and beyond.

Yet a parallel trend is afoot. Just as citizen journalists discover their voices on and offline, some governments are increasing their control and monitoring of online activity. Today, threats to freedom of expression go beyond direct censorship, and they are rapidly evolving. No longer limited to firewalls, Internet repression has taken on new forms: Websites are shut down in cyber attacks; Social media accounts are hacked; mobile phones are monitored; and individuals are tortured for their passwords in order to access entire networks. Through each of these actions, citizen voices are silenced and activism stunted.

As the Internet and communication technologies evolve, we must ensure that people can communicate with one another in an open dialogue of opinions and ideas. Citizens should also be able to access information free from fear that their governments or other malicious actors will harass, arrest, or perpetrate violence against them.

That’s why Secretary Clinton has called for a global commitment to Internet freedom, pointing to the need to protect human rights in the online world just as we do in the offline world. In the 21st century, the freedoms of speech, of assembly and of the press, all translate into the ability to write a blog, create a network, or post an eye-witness video on the Internet without fear of retaliation.
Internet freedom is the freedom not only to go to the websites of one’s choosing, to seek and receive information, but also the ability to express oneself and communicate with others.

The Internet and communication technologies have revolutionized human interaction and will continue to push the frontier of political, economic and social change. As the digital world continues to evolve, we must ensure that it remains open for the courageous citizens—many of whom we have heard from at this conference.

For the United States, our commitment to Internet freedom is not merely about technology; it is a commitment to the rights of people, and we are matching that with our actions. We are supporting the ability of people on the front lines—the “netizens” who use these technologies in the most repressive environments—to connect with each other and express ideas. This means speaking out when bloggers are unfairly harassed or jailed, and highlighting their stories as we have today through the Cano prize.

And at the State Department, we are supporting innovative Internet freedom programs to provide support to “netizens” worldwide. In the last three years, we have awarded $22 million in competitive grants to support the work of technologists and activists leading the fight against internet repression, and we are in the process of awarding $28 million more. We are taking what the Secretary calls “a venture capital approach”, investing in a diversity of technologies and tools, and adapting as more users shift to mobile devices. We are not just helping activists access external content – we are helping them develop secure communications tools so they can publish their own material and organize with each other. We are helping them protect their websites from attack, so that they can tell their own stories online.

Journalism as we have known it is changing. While the future contours of the media landscape remain uncertain, what we know is that regardless of the medium, our human rights and fundamental freedoms remain the same. So that whether you’re a reporter for a daily newspaper, a citizen journalist writing your own blog, or a radio talk show host, you are able to exchange ideas, access information, and express opinions without fear of reprisal or violence from your government. That’s what we are here to celebrate and commit to today.

So with that, I am pleased to introduce you a great “netizen” and 21st century diplomat, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.