Remarks On Media Freedom

Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Tbilisi State University
Tbilisi, Georgia
April 15, 2013

Thank you, Rector Kvitashvili. And thank you to all the journalism students, American studies students, international affairs/relations students, and political scientists gathered here. I appreciate having the opportunity to address you.

It’s an honor to speak to you at Tbilisi State University – the largest university in Georgia, and the oldest in the Caucasus. You know, I was looking at old photographs from the college’s earliest years – and I couldn’t help noticing that even in the most formal pictures, there was intensity and brightness in the faces of the men and the women. And there was always the hint of a smile ready to happen.

I saw women in the photographs too, I am happy to report. One 1935 photograph of the first staff of the newly established Institute of Physiology showed 14 men and eight women. I found that very encouraging, since I have been talking with women in the region about the representation of women in economic and political life – and how important that is for building strong economies and representative democracies.

Today, I come to talk to you – the young minds of Georgia – about something that’s also deeply and profoundly important. And that’s media freedom. Why is media freedom so important? Because – as I often say – information is the oxygen that a free and civilized society needs to breathe. Without it societies suffocate.

Sometimes there’s no information at all – because governments repress it, or journalists are too intimidated or unmotivated or irresponsible to report the truth. Sometimes the information consists primarily of gossip, rumor, hearsay, and conspiracy theories.

So it’s important that we have a diverse and independent press, so the people can trust what they read, hear, and see in the media. When we have a free, fair, and vigorous media environment in a democratic society, we are informed about the truth. And that allows us to make the best decisions we can, based on the most reliable information we can find.

We need all sides of the equation to be mutually reinforcing: On one side, there are the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly, and association that are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and on the other, we need to have freedom of the media so they can hold accountable anyone or any institution that abuses those freedoms. That balance is crucial to a robust democracy.

And that’s where education plays a crucial role. We need whole generations of well-trained journalists who can report information reliably, accurately, and with a sense of fairness and balance — who are not satisfied with false innuendo; who practice analytical reporting that examines the finer details and nuances of the truth; who can learn to adopt – and accept nothing less than – high professional and ethical standards.

We see that media pluralism in Georgia is still evolving, and facing many challenges. The press is often criticized for being unprofessional. People accuse media outlets of being too closely connected to the UNM or Georgian Dream. And more independent, regional media outlets continue to struggle.

Not only that, there are pending elections. So the need to provide fair and balanced media coverage, so voters can make the right choices, is crucial. And in that regard, Georgians face some critical issues.

One is making sure that they can have access to a variety of news channels in the pre-election period. Given the limited variety of media outlets currently available in Georgia, and the clear appetite of the Georgian people for a wide variety of programming and opinion, it is important that they have that programming.

That’s why we are supporting the USAID-funded Georgian Media Enhance Democracy, Informed Citizenry, and Accountability. It’s better known as G-MEDIA. The goal of this $12.9 million program is to improve the Georgian public’s access to a range of sources of news and information by developing a more politically balanced, editorially independent, professional, and viable media sector that reaches audiences across Georgia through diverse delivery channels.

As we continue to advocate for freedom of expression and citizen access to more independent, balanced, and reliable sources of information, we also recognize that Georgia does not face media challenges alone.

In the U.S., print media struggles to maintain profitability and journalistic independence. As newsrooms shrink, many critics talk about the drop in quality of reporting. And major news outlets accuse one another of political biases, a lack of journalistic integrity, and poor quality of reporting.

However, America’s media truly serves its role as the watchdog on the government to ensure that the people’s fundamental freedoms are being protected. And we recognize the contributions that journalists make to the struggle for human dignity, liberty, and prosperity. And through our public diplomacy, we echo those values in our promotion of media freedom and journalistic professionalism throughout the world.

We do that through a robust array of programs through our Public Affairs Office and the USAID. In Georgia, that includes sending Georgian news teams to the U.S. to cover major events like our November presidential elections; or building partnerships between U.S. and Georgian media outlets; or establishing a journalism partnership program between The Georgia Institute for Public Affairs Media School and the University of South Carolina.

We look forward to working with the Government of Georgia, civil society, and media organizations to promote the idea that even the smallest voice from the tiniest village must be heard.

But the real future is with young people like you – not only working as journalists with high standards, but acting as citizens who demand and support a free and vigorous media that doesn’t let emotions get in the way of truth. On those foundations, democracies are built. The future depends on all of you.

Thank you.