LiveAtState: Election Reporting and Press Freedom

Douglas Frantz
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Washington, DC
February 25, 2015

MODERATOR: Welcome back to LiveAtState, the State Department’s online interactive international press conference. I’d like to specifically welcome our viewing parties in our embassies in Angola, Burkina-Faso, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Gabon, Guinea, Kenya, Madagascar, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and Togo. I’m joined today by the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Doug Frantz, who is here today to speak about press freedom and election reporting.

Assistant Secretary Frantz, take it away.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: Thanks very much, Michael. And first let me start by thanking all of you out there watching not just for participating in this call, but more importantly for the work that you do every day. Your role as watchdogs is never easy, and sometimes it can be very dangerous. Too many reporters around the world are harassed, beaten, jailed, and sometimes murdered, just for doing their jobs. There’s been progress in some African countries, but 23 countries in sub-Saharan Africa were categorized as “not free” by Freedom House in their latest report, which came out last year. That’s a concern for those of us here at the State Department and I know it’s a concern for many of you in your daily lives as you go about your work.

I participated in the International Press Institute’s conference last year in Cape Town, South Africa, and while there I heard the stories of many African journalists who were jailed, beaten, or threatened just for trying to do their jobs. So I admire the bravery that was – that you demonstrate every day in your reporting.

Just last month here at the State Department we brought together about 70 people from around the world, including freelance journalists and reporters from Africa and three other continents and representatives of NGOs and mainstream news organizations. Our topic then was how to better protect reporters in conflict zones. And we were focusing then on freelancers and on local reporters. And one of the takeaways for me out of that conference was the real, very present danger that local reporters face around the world and the fact that far too many of you are threatened and sometimes killed for doing your jobs.

Now many of the countries designated by Freedom House as not free will hold elections in coming months. That’s one of the things we’re going to talk about today. It’s your job to monitor those elections and the events leading up to them, ensuring fairness and transparency in voting is vital to building the trust that people must have in their elected governments, and therefore it’s vital to the jobs that you do all the time. I was a reporter for 37 years, a reporter and a newspaper editor. I worked overseas some, in Africa not so much, and I worked here in the United States.

And I just want to tell you a quick story about covering the race for the mayor of Chicago in 1983 – seems a long time ago for some of you, but for me it’s like yesterday. That was a very searing race. There were lies and animosity on both sides. Harold Washington was running then to be the first African-American mayor of Chicago, and to say it was an ugly race is an understatement. Three days before the vote in that race, I wrote a front-page story in The Chicago Tribune that was aimed at separating fact from fiction. And in a way, that’s the ultimate distillation of our job, to separate fact from fiction. Now in this case there were lies from both campaigns. No campaign ever has – has a monopoly on the truth, and most campaigns ultimately devolve into either lying or stretching the truth.

So my job was to call them out, to provide the facts without any favor, without letting anybody know whether I supported one candidate or the other, and it turned out to be a very influential story in just the construction. Again, it was 1983. Now we’re very accustomed to lists, there are websites that do listicals – you get 10 things about this, 10 myths about that. But this was one of the early list stories, and we had 10 fictions followed by fact. And this turned out to be a very influential story because what people wanted was the truth. They wanted to know what the facts really were. And so I look back over 37 years as a newspaper reporter and editor and I point to that as one of my very favorite and most important stories, and I’m really proud of that and it’s really what you are supposed to do, what you have to do, in the forthcoming elections in your countries, and every day in every other story – you find the truth and you tell it.


MODERATOR: Thank you very much for joining us again. Our first question comes from Adebayo of Channel 3 TV. Elections in Africa are different from what is obtainable in developed countries. As a journalist, where do we draw the line between objectivity and sectionalism when reporting election matters? I ask this because religion, ethnicity, and other primordial sentiment sometimes are evident in the dispatch of our watchdog role.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: Well, that’s a great question, and it’s a fundamental question, also. It confronts reporters everywhere. It’s perhaps more difficult for reporters in some places because of the pressures that they’re under. But if you’re going to be a reporter – whether you’re a blogger or a broadcast reporter or a print reporter or a radio reporter – I mean, you have, in my view, only one standard, and that is objectivity and fairness. You have to set aside – no matter how hard it is, you have to set aside all those other feelings. You have to find objectivity.

It’s really hard, and I don’t underestimate it. I was – for much of my career, I was an investigative reporter. And I can sit here and tell you that I wrote a major investigation in the Los Angeles Times about the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and then I came back while working for the Los Angeles Times and wrote a major investigation about President Bill Clinton. So in both cases I had to find my way to being objective and being truthful. That’s very hard; it’s nothing that we do easily.

But it is the most important role that we have in journalists, because if our readers, our viewers, our listeners can’t trust us to be telling them the truth without favor, without our own bias, we lose credibility. Our credibility is based on being objective. It doesn’t mean you don’t make judgments. You do make judgments, but they’re based on fact. They’re based on fact, not favoritism.

MODERATOR: Our next question comes from Ethiopia, the Capital newspaper there. Tesfaye asks: Many journalists and politicians are jailed, but the Ethiopian election will be held after three months. What is the U.S. comment on that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: Well, Ethiopia is a difficult situation, and I mentioned in my opening remarks that I was in Cape Town last April for the IPI conference, and Ethiopia was a big topic of conversation there. One of my fellow panelists was an international journalist who had been jailed in Ethiopia, had recently been released.

I will give you sort of one headline on this. Journalism is not a crime, and journalism shouldn’t be criminalized. And the Ethiopian Government has a weak human rights record, and failing to meet its own constitutional guarantees on fundamental freedoms like freedom of expression are a cause for great concern in our relationship, in the U.S. Government’s relationship with Ethiopia.

Secretary Kerry was in Addis Ababa in May, and he raised this issue. He was asked about the very recent arrest of six bloggers and three independent journalists. And I just want to read you and repeat for you what the Secretary said, because I can’t say it better: “We firmly believe that the work of journalists – whether it’s print journalists, or in the internet, or media, or other kinds – it makes societies stronger. It makes them more vibrant and ultimately provides greater stability and greater voice to democracy. To support economic growth for long term, the free market of ideas matters just as much as free markets. It’s a testament to the strength of our friendship with Ethiopia that we can discuss difficult issues as we do, even when we disagree on one aspect of them or another.”

And so just to underline what the Secretary said, we raise this issue. He raised specifically the issue of the imprisoned journalists. We raise this in our bilateral conversations with our counterparts in governments all around the world. This is not just a problem in Africa, and there are aspects of that problem that we have to address here in the United States.

But we raise this, and the hard part for you is doing your job with the understanding that you have this threat hanging over you. It makes it very difficult and it makes these decisions about what to report and how strongly to report and how loudly to raise your voice very personal for all of you. But I can just tell you that the United States Government believes and tells its counterparts all around the world that freedom of expression is a universal value that needs to be respected. And I just want to repeat that headline, because I think it’s come up over and over in various places. Journalism is not a crime, and it should not be criminalized.

MODERATOR: Staying on the topic of press freedom, Kabre from Burkina Faso asks: In Burkina, the issue of decriminalization of press offenses provokes debate. How does the United States support Burkina Faso in the quest for legislation that allows true freedom of press?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: Well, I could sort of go back and repeat myself here. I’ll try to avoid that. Our embassy in Burkina Faso, as with our embassies elsewhere around the world, makes part of our bilateral conversations respect for freedom of expression. And that means that you should not have laws that criminalize journalism.

I lived for six years as a foreign correspondent in Turkey, and Turkey during that time and even today – more so, perhaps, today – jailed an enormous number of journalists for criticizing the state. That doesn’t happen here in the United States. We have the great benefit of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression. And that’s the standard by which we try – that we try to invoke in our conversations with our counterparts in Burkina Faso and everywhere else around the world.

We can’t come in and dictate to governments. That’s not our job. They have their sovereign responsibilities. But to go back to what Secretary Kerry said, strong governments and strong economies are built on the free market of ideas. Governments that try to suppress news are bound to fail. They are bound to fail, particularly in this day and age when people can get news from all over the world, where there are a plethora of sources of news. Now, some of those sources are questionable. There’s no doubt about that. And so I think that’s one of the reasons it’s in the interests of governments everywhere to promote good journalism by eliminating laws that criminalize journalism and by understanding that having fair criticism of your local government is an important part of a democracy. It’s an important part of building a vibrant, free economy. It’s an important part of engaging with the rest of the world in the 21st century. This is in the interests of the government, not just in the interests of journalists, to have a free and unfettered press.

And sometimes that’s painful. As a government official, which I’ve been for the last two years here at the State Department, I can tell you that sometimes it’s frustrating to see what gets reported in the press, when I know it’s wrong, when I know it’s biased. But what I can do is talk to the reporters, perhaps, and try and straighten them out. What I can do is make sure the facts get out there. But as a government official, I would never advocate muzzling the press.

MODERATOR: The next question comes from our viewing party at our Embassy in Guinea: Guinea will hold presidential elections this fall. And the party in power is currently refusing to accredit the local RFI journalist because of a lack of objectivity. Journalists have threatened to protest over what is viewed as governmental encroachment on freedom of the press. What advice to you give to journalists?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: That’s a great question, because so often journalists fail to stand up for each other. I think – and I always thought throughout my career – that the best journalists I knew were the ones who were independent-minded, who were skeptical, who could go out on their own and dig up and report and write or tell a story. So the same qualities that make us strong journalists – independence, this desire to do it ourselves – sometimes get in the way of us helping each other.

Now, one of the points of the conference that we held here at the State Department last month, and where Secretary Kerry thought it was important enough to be the keynote speaker – but one of the things that we tried to foster there was a conversation about how journalists can help each other, about how NGOs can work with journalistic organizations to come up with safety standards, with guidelines, with training programs. The State Department was not at that – we didn’t convene that conference to dictate anything. We convened it to start a conversation among groups that don’t often talk to each other.

And journalists, they don’t often talk to each other. We’re competitive. We have our own points of view. But I think when freedom of the press is jeopardized, that’s the time when journalists need to come together and make a statement. Because our voice is much stronger when it’s a unified, powerful, and strong voice that cuts across all the different media and all the different political perspectives that are out there. So I’m not going to advocate demonstrations against a government, but I do think that journalists will serve themselves well in the short term and the long term if you’re willing to speak out when journalists are jailed, when journalists are unfairly excluded.

I mean, no government should be the decider when it comes to the objectivity of the press. I mean, sitting here as a government official, I can tell you that sometimes I find the press very non-objective. Sometimes I get angry about what I read. But again, I’m not going to go and tell them because I don’t like that, because I don’t feel that you’re objective, I’m going to take away your ability to tell your story. And that is – again, it’s a self-defeating proposition, given the explosion of information sources worldwide today.

QUESTION: The next question comes from Nigeria: Prior to the scheduled – now rescheduled for March – February 14th presidential election, there were reports that many foreign journalists were unable to obtain visas to enter Nigeria to cover the election. The U.S. Government has said it will watch the elections closely to ensure that they are free and fair. But if foreign journalists can’t enter the country to report on the election, won’t that hinder election oversight?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: Well, yes and no. I mean, I think what that very unfortunate prohibition does is make it more incumbent upon Nigerian journalists to get out there and tell the story, to tell it objectively and honestly, to make sure that both sides in this election get their fair say, but to make sure also that neither side in this election gets away with lying, gets away with suppressing the truth.

So the absence of a large contingent of international journalists is unfortunate, but it’s not determinative. You have the responsibility now – the reporters in Nigeria, other reporters around Africa who can pick up bits and pieces of this story, and reporters who are already there for some of the international press organizations like Reuters and AP and AFP. It’s more important now than ever that you get out and do your jobs in the absence of this international oversight.

And I will tell you that Secretary Kerry and his counterpart in the UK, Philip Hammond, the foreign minister, have both said – and they did a really strong op-ed not long ago together – that said they’re watching what happens in Nigeria. And they have appealed for peace and for a calm, transparent, and fair election, because it’s important to Nigeria and it’s important to the countries around Nigeria.

Nigeria is one of Africa’s most influential and vital countries, and if you can have a democratic election there that is seen far and wide as free and fair and transparent, it will do an enormous amount for the business climate, for the economic climate, for the future of democracy, not only in Nigeria, but in every country in the region; because Nigeria will show that yes, we can do it, even under the difficult circumstances that face the country now.

And I’d make one other point about the importance of the Nigerian election, and that is that it’s more vital than ever that Nigeria come together after this election, whoever wins this election. And it’s not up to the United States to say who should win. We don’t have an opinion on that. But what we do have an opinion on is that after a free and fair election that there is a unified government, because the threats confronting Nigeria now are very real. And they’re going to require that the Nigerian people get behind their leader, whoever it is.

MODERATOR: We have time for two more questions, the next one from Simon of the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation: Are there plans to build capacity for journalists ahead of the 2017 Kenyan elections on how to effectively write issues-oriented discourse rather than the usual political rhetoric?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: That’s a great question. I wish I had an answer for it. The U.S. Government, through various private sector partners and nongovernmental organizations, does provide some training for journalists. We have a variety of programs that do that. I’m sorry that I don't know what’s available in Kenya or in the region, but what I’m going to do is after this, I’ll get in touch with Linda Thomas-Greenfield and the Africa Bureau folks and see what’s available.

Because I think that there are – there are lessons that can be taught. There are – and it’s – there are standards that we can share and that other countries share, and that Kenya – I mean, Kenya has a vibrant press. So there must be ways that we can help. And what I’m going to promise you is that I’ll get on that and someone from the Embassy in Kenya will get back to you in short order about what’s available, if there is anything. I’m sorry I don’t have a better answer.

MODERATOR: And our last question comes from Boubacar in Guinea: Referring to President Barack Obama’s historic statement, ‘We need strong institutions, not strongmen,’ why don’t Western countries support institutions to be strong instead of funding governments who are, in a majority, organizing elections whose outcomes are known well in advance? In Guinea nowadays, journalists face brutality and are threatened. Don’t you think that they could be potential targets of unidentified executioners?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: Let me start with the last part of that first because that’s serious. Journalists are targets in too many places around the world. The Committee to Protect Journalists, which is a New York-based organization with international reach, did a study of journalists who were killed in the line of duty in 2014. And they found that a majority of those journalists had been threatened first. They knew that they were targets. And so targeting journalists is abhorrent. It’s abhorrent to the U.S. Government. It must be and should be abhorrent to the Government of Guinea and every other government in the world. You cannot kill journalists.

One of the things, one of the takeaways from the conference that we had here at the State Department last week, we asked the journalists and organizations to do a lot and to work together, but for the State Department, one of the items that we took away from that was to find a better way worldwide to address the issue of impunity for people who kill journalists. More than 90 percent – in more than 90 percent of the cases, journalists who are killed, no one ever is brought to justice. And that’s not acceptable. And the State Department is going to work hard in the coming months to raise that profile and to make that issue more important in our bilateral conversations.

Now to go back to the start of that question, which I’ve forgotten. Where were we in the beginning on that, Michael?

MODERATOR: The United States Government supporting --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: Yeah, strongmen. Strongmen versus strong institutions. I’m sorry. It’s always better to support institutions, and I think that the U.S. Government, and in particular the State Department, does an important and very good job of building institutions around the world. It’s one of our primary mandates. The State Department and USAID both are engaged, and thousands of people who work here at the State Department in this building and all around the world are committed to helping build strong institutions. We work with governments, we work with civil society to do that. That is a vital part of our mission.

That said, sometimes I feel personally – not as the assistant secretary of state – but I feel personally that we do defer too often to strongmen in positions, that we do too often put the wrong considerations up as our top priorities. If we build strong institutions, we won’t need the kind of strong-armed leaders that we see in too many countries. So it’s a fight that’s waged every day out of the State Department, and every day, we’re trying to do better, in part to help journalists all across the world, and particularly in vital countries across Africa, do their jobs better.

MODERATOR: Well, thank you, Assistant Secretary Frantz, so much for joining us here on LiveAtState today.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FRANTZ: Thank you. Thanks a lot, and thanks to all of you.

MODERATOR: And I’d like to thank you for joining us as well. You can continue the conversation on Twitter, @StateAfrica, and also @StateDept. And join us on Facebook at DOSStateAfrica. And we hope you can join us again for another LiveAtState program soon.