Remarks on New Strategies in Defense of Global Press Freedoms

Richard Stengel
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Columbia University
New York City
November 2, 2015

UNDER SECRETARY STENGEL: Steve, thank you so much for that really kind introduction. And for those of you who are here at the journalism school, you’re very, very fortunate to have Dean Coll as your leader. He is – I think of this as the era of the player-coach and nobody, but nobody, practices journalism – important journalism, memorable journalism, journalism that affects the world – in a higher or better fashion than Steve has done over the years. I don’t know how your fundraising prowess is, but if it’s anything like your journalistic prowess, you will be incredibly successful here. So you’re very, very lucky to have him.

I’m really, really pleased to be here. This really started with a conversation a number of months ago. I live about 20 blocks south of here. I commute to Washington, so I thought this is sort of my home game, and I’m pleased to have you host me tonight.

I was going to try something a little bit different this evening, which is to actually give a speech, which I know you’re so excited about. But this is so small and informal and intimate in a lovely way, I’ll be a little bit more kind of spontaneous and not stick to what I have in front of me. So, Steve, thank you for having me. This is a super-important discussion to have and I want to thank, before they criticize me, Agnes, Ann, and Joel, who will be coming up at the – on the panel.

As Steve mentioned, I spent most of my career in journalism. And even though so many people in journalism who are my generation are down at the mouth about journalism – and certainly the equities of journalism and the financial basis of journalism has changed – I actually think there’s never been a more exciting time to be in journalism than right now in my lifetime. And the reason is because the new platforms, the new tools of storytelling – I mean, you can do a better job, a richer job, really show the complexity of stories in a way – using all of these various tools in a way that was very limited in my era. My era – we originally turned in our stories that were written on typewriters, on paper, in a little wooden box, and those days are gone. There’s much, much more power that people have now.

But even though it is an incredibly exciting time to be a journalist, it is also an incredibly challenging time. In fact, I think the challenges to journalism now are deeper and more profound and more disturbing than also any time in our lifetime. And I’m going to talk about basically three big challenges: There’s the journalism safety, there’s the challenge of the shrinking of the freedom of speech space, and then there’s the rise of disinformation. I’m going to touch on all of those three things and talk a little bit about what the State Department is doing to combat some of those things, although it’s very, very, very difficult.

Again, I think as most of you know, the last three years have been the most dangerous and perilous time for journalism in memory. Just in 2014 alone, more than 200 journalists were imprisoned, more than 60 journalists were killed. Of course, we get most of these numbers from CPJ and the incredible work that they do and you’ll hear more about tonight. In fact, oftentimes we’re trying to serve what CPJ is doing.

I come at this having been a journalist for all of these years, being a devout believer in the power and importance of the First Amendment, with the idea that freedom of expression is a foundational human right. At the same time, having now been in government for about a year or year and a half, I see that freedom of speech, freedom of expression has different manifestations around the world. The U.S. in many ways is an outlier on this. As a culture, we are almost absolutists in our defense of free speech. That doesn’t exist everywhere and it often causes some tension in our relationships.

But going to that second matter of the shrinking of the freedom of speech space, the thing that I’ve seen since I’ve been in government is so many of this rise of countries with autocratic leadership have realized that, in fact, you can shrink and narrow that freedom of speech space; that everything that we believed about the rise of the internet, that it was like air and this incredible, never-ending supply of information – countries are realizing that they can crack down on that. They can erect firewalls, they can pass criminal defamation laws, they can pass restrictive NGO laws. All of those things begin to restrict that freedom of speech space, which already is different than it is in the U.S.

So one of the determinations I have since I’ve been at the State Department is not only how to safeguard journalists, how to give them tools to keep them more safe – because the other thing that we’ve seen in the last three to five years is journalists, once upon a time – and Steve was in war zones – journalists had a kind of safe pass; you’re trying to bring the truth to people. Now, journalists are targets of regimes, targets of folks like ISIL. Journalists themselves, because of what they do, have become combatants in a war zone. That’s something we all have to fight against and is a terrible challenge.

Since – again, I’ve been in this job and have traveled around the world, I see the incredible bravery and courage of so many journalists around the world, and the challenges that they face are really inconceivable to American journalists. Some of you, I hope and assume, are here at the journalism school. The threats and the challenges to American journalists pale – not that I want to underestimate what they are, but they pale compared to what foreign journalists in so many places around the world have to reckon with. They have to reckon with being put in jail, they have to reckon with being followed, they have to reckon with – just the idea of practicing journalism is considered a crime in many places, trying to speak truth to power, which is our definition of journalism. Speaking truth to power in so many places around the world can get you jailed or even killed. So we have to combat that.

The other thing that I’ve seen and it doesn’t get as much discussion is what I’d call the rise of disinformation. And it’s ironic because there’s never been a greater, richer, more information age in history. All of human knowledge is at the touch of your iPhone. Google estimates that basically the amount of information that was created throughout human history till 15 or 20 years ago is now equaled every year. So this is an incredible rise of information, yet at the same time there’s been almost a similar rise in disinformation and in false facts, whatever you want to call it. And one of my heroes being a New Yorker was Pat Moynihan, who was a senior senator from New York, and he used to have a lovely line where he would say, “You’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” And everybody would nod their head.

But now more and more, we see people feel like I’m entitled to my own facts and I dispute those facts. There’s no consensus anymore about what’s true even though the tools for fining out the truth, for finding out the reality, for finding out the facts, are better than any time in history. And around the time that I came into office was the time we saw the Russian illegal annexation of Crimea, and one of the things I saw even though I had been in journalism and media my whole life, I saw the rise – I saw the extent, the power of Russian disinformation and Russian propaganda. And that’s something that we’re seeing in lots of different spaces around the world and it is, I would say, an existential threat to freedom. It’s a threat to our security and it’s a threat to this very, very basic idea that we have that there’s a reality, there’s a truth out there, which is something that journalists hold dear. That is under threat in a way that we haven’t seen– ever, I don’t think.

Someone said this about the Russian space, but it’s true in general on this disinformation piece. It’s not so much an information war but a war on information, a war on the idea of truth. That so many of these bad actors – and we’ll talk about them in a minute, one of whom is so-called ISIL – is not so much that they want you to believe their point of view, but they want to say that everybody’s point of view – everybody comes at things in a venal way, there’s no truth out there to be verified.

So my big boss President Obama, as well as my day-to-day boss Secretary Kerry, has made it very clear that supporting freedom of the press is a critical element of U.S. foreign policy. I mentioned those three challenges that we’re seeing out there, and I want to talk a little bit about what the State Department is doing to try to help some of those areas and how we could use your help as well. I mean, the panelists will talk about this, but even the folks here at the journalism school, there are things that we can do together because government isn’t always the best messenger for our own message or even for some of the programs that we are creating.

So in January we had a meeting at the State Department that brought together stakeholders in the safety of journalism and the freedom of information space – likeminded governments, foundations, NGOs – to talk about some of the things that we could do. And there were a number of ideas that came up, which are things that we are now trying to do, one of which was the U.S. Government has to prioritize journalistic safety in all of our bilateral discussions with governments around the world. That’s something that the Secretary has put a great deal of emphasis on. And now that I am a diplomat, I am in the State Department, I have to say one of the things that’s been actually wonderful and reassuring as an American is that behind the scenes in those rooms that I used to stand outside and take notes on, now that I’m in those rooms I see over and over and practice it myself American diplomats who are on the one hand saying yes, here are these things that we think you’re doing well, but there are these other things that we really need to talk to you about. And one of them is repression of journalists. One of them is not allowing people – reporters to rove around and have free access to your people. One of them are these strict NGO laws that you have that are limiting that space. I mean, diplomats all around the world do this day in and day out, and I have to say as an American it’s something that has really made me proud.

We want to create a network of organizations, NGOs, groups who can help journalists in conflict zones. I mean, one of the things that we’ve seen is that people are creating apps for journalistic safety. It’s been concentrated in Iraq and Syria, but these are things that can help journalists everywhere. And it’s something that we want to help the private sector with, we want to help groups with, and we want to create a network of networks that can help journalistic safety.

One of the other things that we’re establishing at the State Department is a clear protocol for personnel at all of our posts around the world to help journalists who may be under threat, who may be under physical threat, whose safety is being challenged, and who are just not able to do the job that they’re supposed to do. So we’re creating a protocol, sets of guidelines for people in all of our posts. There are public diplomacy officers and public affairs officers at hundreds and hundreds of posts and hubs around the world. They can be real allies for journalists, both American journalists there as well as international journalists and domestic journalists in that space.

We’re also working to expand safety training for local journalists through the State Department. We have a public affairs department which reports up to me, has a very strong program about this. The Secretary is going to be talking about it. It’s something that we can do to help journalistic organizations train their correspondents. When I was editor of Time and sent young men and women who were journalists into harm’s way, into Iraq, into Syria, into Afghanistan, there were obviously training and safety programs that we had to do. But this has to become something that is universal and ubiquitous, and we want to help with that.

At the same time we want to help journalists in those countries that have a much stricter, more narrow, more repressive free speech space to help them do what they do. We want our diplomats in all of those places to become the advocates for those journalists journalists with their local governments and local handlers.

In April, the State Department launched the fourth annual Free the Press Campaign, which highlighted individual journalists who remain wrongly imprisoned. I won’t go over that list. Joel knows it chapter and verse much better than I do. But we realize that the U.S. Government has to speak out all the time for journalists who are wrongly imprisoned, who are held behind bars, who are not allowed to what they do. And as I say, we do this regularly behind the scenes in diplomatic give and take, but we need to do it publicly and we need to do even more of it. And we can talk about cases later on. And there are cases that day in and day out we are talking to foreign governments about getting journalists released from prison.

And then the other thing, and I alluded to it before – the rise of disinformation. The Secretary of State likes to talk about journalists as being truth tellers. And one of the things we have to do is to figure out how to enable journalists to tell the truth. What are the tools that we can help give them? What are the protections that we can help give them? What is the access that we can give them to people who can help them tell the truth?

There’s an area that I’ve been very focused on, which is counter-ISIL messaging. I don’t have to tell you about the rise of this terrorist group and the crisis that they have caused in the Middle East and their very, very sophisticated use of social media. So just to remind people of what the State Department is doing, I wanted to use that as one example. So one of the entities underneath me as under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs is the Center for Strategic Counter-Terrorism Communications, which is a 24/7 entity that messages against ISIL – against Daesh, as we call it, which is the Arabic name. And so there are things that government can do in terms of corralling people, of helping journalists, but then we are also out there in that space counterdicting, countermanding, creating different messages that try to prevent the rise of ISIL in the free speech space.

They have been incredibly successful, as we’ve seen other entities, in kind of seeding – having an information predicate before they’re out there in the military space. This is something that the military talks about in other areas as hybrid warfare. Hybrid warfare, which is the use of information to lay a predicate before military action, is another threat to journalism because it coopts journalists.

At the same time in that effort –we convened the counter-ISIL coalition, which is the messaging coalition of the 65 nations that are counter-ISIL. And we had representatives of Facebook, of Google, of Twitter, and some other technology companies there, and we have been trying to help those technology companies interdict that kind of negative messaging that is polluting their ecosphere. And I want to just put in a word for those companies that are doing actually incredible work in this area that people don’t know about. Earlier in the summer, Twitter took down 10,000 handles that were promoting ISIL’s noxious vision. They’ve been incredibly strong in that space, and government can actually help them do that.

In this rise of disinformation – and being here at the journalism school, I want to talk about one value that was a value that I preached when I was in journalism, but I think it’s something that the J school could do. One of the things I always tell my folks in the field is that there aren’t two sides to a lie. With the rise of disinformation and propaganda, there is not just small manipulations of the truth; there are actual lies, made-up facts. And one of the things that they depend on is journalists who feel that to be objective you have to balance two sides. And there’s a false equivalency if you balance a lie against the truth. I believe journalists have to call out the lie. One of the things I always told my folks at Time was, “You’re an expert in this. You know what’s wrong. You have to state your point of view.” And I do believe that one of the aspects of 21st century journalism and all the tools that are at the disposal of 21st century journalism is that people have to be able to expose those lies. They can’t balance something that is false against something that is true.

So we’re trying to support independent media around the world. We have a bunch of programs for journalists that I also want to promote a little bit tonight. Right now there are a hundred foreign journalists who are here on the Edward R. Murrow Program that the State Department sponsors to go to newsrooms, to talk to editors, to promote these values of free speech. We have about 1,200 foreign journalists who participate in State Department programs which range from support for investigative reporters in Kyrgyzstan to bloggers in Brazil to a program that we have in the Baltics that has a – awards for the best investigative journalism. That’s something that we can help.

And I just want to put in a pitch, basically, for the J School, for any students who are here, to try to help with some of those programs. You can participate in the Murrow Program from both sides. You can participate in these exchange programs. I have actually always believed that I’ve been a public servant all of my life. I believe journalism is a public service. The first amendment protects journalism. It’s the only amendment – it’s the only part of the Constitution that protects an industry. It protects an industry because a democracy doesn’t grow up itself. As Jefferson said, “A people can never be ignorant and free.” So journalism is necessary in any kind of representative democracy. We want to support that around the world, we want to support that at home, and we want you all to get involved.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)