On May 3, 2011, we marked the 18th observance of World Press Freedom Day. And this year, there is much to celebrate. Thanks to new forums for public opinion, such as the internet and social media, voices have been heard in countries across North African, and repressive regimes are crumbling. It is as if Thomas Jefferson’s words from 1823 are echoing throughout the world, “The formidable censure of the public functionaries, by arraigning them at the tribunal of public opinion, produces reform peaceably, which must otherwise have been done by revolution.”
A fundamental axiom of democracy is that citizens must have information and knowledge. People must be informed if they are to play an active role in the life of their country. Free and responsible media are critical sources of information for citizens who want to choose the best leaders for their country and make sound decisions about the issues in their nation and in their communities.
The information the media provide is just as critical for intelligent economic and personal decisions as for good political choices. There is a strong relationship between open media and free and effective economies. In fact, recent studies conducted by the World Bank have shown that free media are essential for successful economic progress in developing countries.
The Human Rights Report on Kenya, released on April 7, says the following, “The constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, but [in 2010] the government sometimes restricted these rights. Unlike the previous year, there were no reports that security forces killed members of the media. However, during the year security forces harassed members of the media, and journalists practiced self-censorship.” What Kenya needs to support the reform agenda is a free and professional press corps that can work unhindered by harassment to bring necessary information to the Kenyan people.
The failure of the Kenyan media to report accurately and responsibly both before and after the election often had less to do with malicious intent than with lack of experience and training on how to report on conflict. Vernacular radio stations in particular, often identified as being most at fault, are often staffed by highly motivated but untrained volunteers. “Reporting for Peace” and “Land and Conflict Sensitive Journalism” are USAID projects to train journalists to create a more professional Kenyan media.
The Nairobi Media Resource Center, a place where journalists can come to access equipment, mentorship, information, and apply for travel grants, was established through USAID-support. Following its success, another center was opened in Eldoret in the Rift Valley. This area experienced horrific ethnic violence during the post-election period. The area remains one of the most vulnerable to violence and ethnic tension in Kenya. The U.S. Embassy is focusing on training local journalists in conflict sensitive reporting. The Eldoret Media Resource Center better equips local journalists to produce stronger and more balanced stories.
It has long been the policy of the U.S. government to support the development of open and responsible media abroad and to assist in building the infrastructure needed for a free press to operate—legislative infrastructure, financial independence, transparency in government, and journalists trained in objective and fair reporting. Achieving a free and responsible media is a constant, challenging, vital and ongoing activity. We must keep in sight the ultimate objective—a citizenry able to make informed decisions that shape their lives.
I want to close with another quote from Thomas Jefferson: “The only security of all is in a free press.”