Remarks on Challenges to Freedom of the Press

Sarah Sewall
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Embassy of Sweden
Washington, DC
December 2, 2016

Good afternoon everyone. Thank you Göran, and thanks to the Embassy of Sweden and the Newseum for hosting us on this special day.

Twenty-five years before James Madison wrote the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and 250 years ago to the day, the Riksdag passed the Swedish Press Act – the world’s first law upholding freedom of the press and freedom of information.

Both our nations understand that information is like oxygen to a democracy. Without it, how can citizens properly assess the challenges and choices before them for collective governance? And if information is like oxygen to a democracy, the press is its lifeblood – the vehicle for synthesizing and transmitting information to every part of the body politic.

That is why both our nations have made the freedom of information and freedom of the press bedrocks of our foreign policy. Over the years, our advocacy for these freedoms abroad has encountered two primary challenges.

In places muzzled by authoritarianism, journalists and citizens have little to no space to make their voices heard, and those who do often pay for it with their freedom and even their lives.

By contrast, in emerging democracies, the challenge is not whether the press has space, but how it uses that space to inform citizens and reinforce democratic norms. In these places, it’s common to see media with weak reporting standards – willing to traffic whatever scandal, scurrilous fact, or innuendo drives consumption. Such outlets also exist in Sweden and the United States, but they operate alongside well-established outlets that take seriously their responsibilities.

Given these two challenges, the United States and Sweden have either pressed restrictive governments to open up space for free expression and independent press, or we have sought to help media improve standards to fulfill their democratic role.

But these two lines of effort do not account for a new challenge: the exploitation of social media and modern communications by states to misinform, obfuscate, and straight out lie.

With the information age has come a flood of websites, social media content, and individual “reporting” that has jumbled the information landscape for citizens. And in this media maelstrom, states like China and Russia see opportunities to realize old-world propaganda goals with new age technologies.

A recent report found that the Chinese government and its legions of helpers write nearly half a billion fake posts a year. These helpers don’t rebut criticisms of the government directly; they change the subject – avoiding the backlash of overt censorship while steering public debate. Today, social media allows government to recruit literally millions of voices to distort and distract on its behalf.

In Russia, the government spends at least $400 million each year for its propaganda machine of bots and trolls and factories of false content to undermine trust in independent media. Following the 2014 revolution in Ukraine, that machine tried to label the newly elected government as fascists – a categorically false but explosive claim given the country’s history.

After Russia-backed forces downed a Malaysian airliner later that year, the Russian spin machine went into overdrive with distractions and distortions. We have only begun to grapple with consequences of when the resources of a state combine with the megaphone of the internet.

One Russian-born journalist described it like this – “it’s not an information war; it’s a war on information.” And let us be clear: a war on information is a war on democracy itself.

That is why, the United States surged support in Europe for civil society and media most vulnerable to Russian pressure by over 50 percent to over $85 million dollars.

The new challenge I’ve described – of a massive state-sponsored, technologically-amplified war on truth – will not going away. It may yet grow worse. Our answer is to fight for the truth, not through propaganda of our own, but by standing firm for free and independent media around the world.

Thank you all very much.