Remarks at the Journalist Security Conference

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
January 20, 2015

Well, thank you very much, Tom. Thanks for your outstanding service, your leadership, and your passion about this and all issues about human rights. And as Secretary of State, I will tell everybody it’s an enormous advantage to have an advisor who is so knowledgeable and so widely respected, so much so that the very name Malinowski has become synonymous, virtual synonym for leadership on the issue of human rights. It is my fervent wish that the world didn’t give my assistant secretary of state so much to do.

This morning I also want to say thank you to another assistant secretary and his team for conceiving and organizing this conference. Now, I’ve known Doug Frantz for a long time. He worked with me in the United States Senate. He’s been in and out of journalism, but journalism is his passion, as well as public policy. And he’s really equally passionate with Tom about this issue of safety for journalists. And the reason is he was a great reporter himself and later had the experience of sending people on his staff into dangerous places, into warzones, to cover and shed light on the nature of the conflict to the rest of the world. And everybody here knows how much we value that. The open free flow of information is at the core of our democracy, at the core of our sense of rectitude about the relationship between people and the world around them.

And Doug is also somebody who tragically has lost close friends and colleagues who were killed simply for doing their jobs. Journalism is in his blood and he cares deeply about those who practice it and about the principles that should protect everybody’s freedom and safety as they go out simply to tell the story. So I thank him for bringing us together, and I thank the expert panelists – including my friends David Rhode and Sebastian Junger – from whom you are going to hear directly shortly. And I thank all of you for taking time out of your schedules, particularly those of you who have traveled some distance to be able to be here.

We all know that journalism can be dangerous. There’s no way to eliminate the risk completely, except by keeping silent, and that’s what we call surrender. So that’s not in the cards. The world obviously needs to be informed about what is happening. Silence gives power to dictators, to the abusers, to tyrants. It allows tyranny to flourish, not freedom. And so what is happening in high-threat locations such as Syria, Iraq, Somalia, or Central African Republic, Libya, Pakistan – all of these are places where they don’t want people to tell the story or they distort it. We need people who are going to shed light also on subtler forms of coercion that rot a society from within – corruption, crime. Exposing them can be dangerous, difficult, but equally critical to the capacity to have accountability and to respect the rights of people.

Today’s conference gives us a chance to look in a cooperative way at: How do we better protect journalists and other media workers who provide these windows on reality? And our particular focus is on local reporters and freelancers who lack the broad access to training and also lack, frankly, support from the largest news organizations that have a little more clout and a little more power and ability to be able to protect their people.

Why does this issue matter? Well, there are a bunch of reasons, but let me begin pretty starkly with a few: al-Moataz Bellah Ibrahim, Deniz Firat, James Foley, Gregorio Jimenez de la Cruz, Camille Lepage, Ali Mustafa, Andrea Rocchelli, Luke Somers, Steven Sotloff, and Bernard Verlhac. I could go on. Unfortunately, a bunch more were added the other day in Paris. These are much more than just names of people, folks. Each one of those names reflects a life that was prematurely cut off, and it was ended by violence – that’s just 2014, some of those names I read you; in the case of Monsieur Verlhac, earlier this month. And each reflects the death of a storyteller who had more stories to tell. Each is a personal tragedy. Each is a call to action. Each is a reminder that freedom of the press is not free but it is, in fact, very costly.

By now, we’re all familiar with the statistics. Nine media workers were among the dead in Paris. In 2014, at least 60 journalists were killed; 73 the year before that. And many others wounded, harassed, detained, or threatened. These are record numbers, getting worse, not better. And a sad litany is that it really reflects the collective failure on the part of the world community to end some of these conflicts and to preserve peace. There’s nothing I’d like more as Secretary of State than to see war correspondents left with no stories to cover; but until that distant day arrives, it’s going to remain the trademark of top international journalists that they rush to enter places that other folks are desperate to escape. It’s also true that the vast majority of the victims we mourn each year are local reporters covering local issues. And when the security environment heats up, these journalists can’t buy a plane ticket and go home. They are home. If they write or take pictures for a living, that’s the job that many of them are going to continue to do, and for that we ought to be grateful. But these journalists are also in danger, and the question today is: What more can we realistically do to help?

Decades ago, when I was preparing to go to Vietnam, I received training from the most professional military in the world. Yet I still found that a lot of what I saw and engaged in was jarring and unexpected – a certain level of lack of preparation despite the preparation, each day filled with unpleasant surprises. And even though reporters aren’t sent anywhere to fight, they’re expected to do a job. And the more preparation that they have, frankly, the better the chances are for them to avoid danger. Measure that against the training that most reporters get today. What kind – what are we talking about here?

Well, you’re the experts. But if I were about to drop into an uncertain environment in order to try to cover the story, I’d sure as heck want to know as much as I could about how to protect myself, about what to expect, about what kind of equipment and supplies I should carry, about how to do first aid on myself or my colleagues, about how to develop educational and situational awareness, to identify warning signs about how to make sure that my communications are secure. I’d also want to know what not to do, what not to say, what not to have in my possession in case I were stopped or searched or abducted. And perhaps most of all, I’d want to have some help in preparing psychologically in knowing what to expect and in thinking about how to deal with the intense stress, with harsh questioning, with depravation, and other forms of adversity. And I would feel a lot better if there were people I could call when the trouble arose or some signal or mechanism that existed to know my last location or where I was going, or all of those kinds of things that not everybody thinks about.

It’s good to know that you’ve prepared for the possibility that people have your back. As a rule, it’s not the responsibility, obviously, of government to step in and provide this kind of training. In fact, journalists ought to be as independent from the public sector as possible, and sometimes, that lack of independence confuses people, and those are some of the telling pre-indicators of a potential of trouble. But there are places where government can help. We do believe that.

Two years ago, the State Department launched what we call the SAFE Initiative, a pilot project to help local media workers in difficult regions. It now has five centers in various parts of the globe, and it’s focused on digital and physical security, psychosocial care, information sharing, and the establishment of regional security advisory networks. And thus far, it has reached some 300 working journalists. In addition, the U.S. Agency for International Development and State Department have programs that support independent media in more than 30 countries, including an internet freedom program that provides outlets with long-term mentoring, tools, training, and techniques to help reporters keep themselves and keep their data safe.

More generally, under President Obama, we have made support for press freedom one of the recurring themes of United States foreign policy. Each day, American diplomats make known our backing in one place or another directly to government, directly to the public, but firmly, in all cases, our backing for the right of people to speak, publish, broadcast, blog, tweet, and otherwise express themselves openly and without fear and without retribution. And when journalists are unfairly detained, we always raise this issue in our meetings with foreign officials at every level, and that is true whether the journalist is an American such as Jason Rezaian, who is being held in Iran, or from some other country where the rights of journalists are violated all too often.

And this is particularly important now because the world environment has obviously changed and changed significantly. It used to be that the primary threat to journalists was just being in the wrong place at the wrong time – you step on a landmine or you get in the way of a border or a fire or whatever happens. And we’ve lost people that way, obviously, in past wars. In the past, it was extremely rare for a member of the press to be intentionally targeted, stalked, followed. But in our era, roughly two-thirds of the reporters who die violently are killed because of, not despite, their profession. They are attacked for what they have written, silenced for what they have witnessed, or kidnapped for the leverage their capture may provide. And in most cases, the perpetrators are not caught.

The truth is that freedom of the press, whether symbolized by a pencil, a pen, a camera, or a microphone is under siege, purposefully. And that is because some people, some groups, and even some governments want to dictate the truth, want to define it, want to hide what we would know to be the truth. And obviously, we cannot and we will not let that happen, especially after the outrage in Paris on January 7th, we need to make certain that we are taking all the steps in our power to reiterate our commitment to the values that bring all of you here today.

So this morning there’s a band of brothers and sisters who are here today, and I have great confidence because of you in coming here today and in my knowledge of the people and mission you are on. I know you’re not going to give up and I have great confidence in the future of press freedom and the commitment of journalists of every description to go out and find the truth and report on it no matter where they are and what the resistance and no matter how stark the danger, no matter how many efforts are made to shut you down. And we will stand with you every step of the way in all the ways that we have at our disposal.

So I ask you to sort of have at it this morning. You’re going to hear from some experts, from some folks who’ve been through some pretty grueling experiences, and you’re going to have a chance to really dig into this and I urge you to do so. I’d like to just ask, just to get a sense of this, I’d ask all the journalists and other media workers who are here if you have ever been attacked or kidnapped or seriously threatened in the course of doing your jobs, I’d just like for you to stand, just so we get a sense of how many you here have been through that experience. Come on. You guys who were – how many people here who have been in that experience.

We’ll that’s pretty significant. That’s amazing, as a matter of fact. An enormous number. Thank you for standing, and please, I want you to stay, be part of this discussion. Please share with everybody what you’ve been through, what you learned from it, what you think could be done, and I really look forward to Doug and Tom reporting to all of us here in the Department what our roadmap is going forward so that we can help to do our part to try to make you a little bit safer.

I thank you very, very much for being here and I think because of you perhaps we have a chance to make future generations of journalists a little safer, a little more secure. And I can guarantee you in doing so we all contribute to the possibilities of the truth winning out and of democracy getting stronger, and I thank you for that. Thank you very much. (Applause.)