Promoting Responsible Journalism: The Role of Governments

Remarks by U.S. Embassy Spokesperson Karen Kelley at the “Charting a Way Forward to Responsible Journalism in Zimbabwe” Seminar, organized by the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum (ZINEF)

I am honored to join you today in this important discussion seminar that seeks to take a fresh look at the conduct of Zimbabwean media professionals and chart a new way for truthful reporting in Zimbabwe. Indeed, thanks to the bravery of some members of the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum, we continue to read, listen to and watch robust and critical coverage of governance issues in Zimbabwe, including maladministration, and abuse of power in both government and the private sector.

World Press Freedom Day is an opportunity to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; to assess the state of press freedom throughout the world; to defend the media from attacks on their independence; and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.  As we commemorate World Press Freedom Day on May 3rd 2014, we affirm the right of journalists in their pursuit of truth.  In many parts of the world, that pursuit is still a profoundly dangerous activity.  And because this right is continuously under assault, it is in need of our affirmation.

It is in this context that I want to talk about the critical role that governments can and should play in encouraging responsible journalism.  Firstly, I should emphasize that I am no expert on the nitty-gritty of the newsroom processes and information flows that entail responsible journalism.  My own experience has been that of a U.S. government diplomat supporting information services and public outreach for the United States Department of State.  However, that experience has enabled me to have a wealth of contact with professionals in the media and it has also shown me that governments do have a critical role to play in supporting an environment that is conducive to press freedom. This role for governments is a universal one; no country can claim to have a superior role over any other in carrying out this role.

Let me try to contextualize what I mean by responsible journalism.  The public expectation is that news organizations will work to promote accountability from their government, from the private sector as well as from other powerful interests in society. The public also expects that the information they receive from media professionals is trustworthy and credible.  These expectations are premised on the ideal that journalists and editors as professionals are working to maintain and uphold the highest ethical standards.

The Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ) has existed as a professional journalists’ organization since 1909.  In 1996, the SPJ developed a code of conduct for the Society that captures these ideals succinctly:  It states: “Seek Truth and Report It, Act Independently and Be Accountable.”  “Minimize harm,” Show good taste.” “Show compassion …” “Be accountable.” Those are honorable and noble aspirations that good journalists – responsible journalists – impose on their activities every working day.

Upholding this standard is a challenge everywhere in the world.  During my eight months in Zimbabwe, I have read newspaper headlines that have absolutely nothing to do with the content of the published stories.  Refreshingly though, I have also read how some of these cases have been resolved through a voluntary process coordinated by the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ).  This is a development that needs encouragement and support.  As a U.S. government official, I do not necessarily agree with or like everything that the media publishes concerning the United States government, yet I absolutely do defend the media’s right to publish.

In the United States, the right of the press to freely publish, editorialize, critique, and inform is a fundamental principle of American democracy.  In fact, the form of government that Americans enjoy today would not have been possible without a great compromise known as the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  These amendments guarantee a number of personal freedoms, limit the government’s power in judicial and other proceedings, and reserve some powers to the states and the public.  The first amendment declares “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  I would emphasize the portion that states that the U.S. Congress shall make no law…”Abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”  Press freedom in the U.S. exists not merely because it is codified in law.  It exists and flourishes today because the American people cherish it.  They do so because of the important role of the free press in forging our nation, informing our citizens, and in holding our leaders accountable to the American people.

The United States government supports a free and responsible media, and encourages other governments to adopt similar practices that protect press freedoms.  We encourage press freedom abroad by funding media training and support programs that provide training to foreign journalists, both in the United States and abroad.   For the third year in a row, the Department of State is conducting a Free the Press Campaign in the lead up to tomorrow’s World Press Freedom Day commemoration, and the opportunity that this date presents to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; assess the state of press freedom throughout the world; defend the media from attacks on their independence; and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.  The Department of State’s Free the Press Campaign will focus our public diplomacy efforts on raising awareness of the restrictions on the media and on freedom of expression around the world.  On April 25, at an event at USUN New York, USUN Ambassador Samantha Power and Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski launched the campaign by announcing the first two cases of journalists or press outlets under threat.  From April 28 until today, the Department Spokesperson has been highlighting cases of journalists or press outlets under threat around the world at the daily press briefing.  The Spokesperson has read a statement at the top of the briefing about two cases and shown pictures to the State press corps.

I would note that the recent arrest and charges against journalists at the Daily News as well as Newsday Editor Nevanji Madanhire and reporter Moses Matenga are not in keeping with the efforts to maintain an environment in which journalism in Zimbabwe can flourish.

Here in Harare, one of our flagship programs at the U.S. Embassy is the Women Journalists’ Mentoring Program, which we jointly implement with the Humanitarian Information Facilitation Center.  This program focuses on providing training to young women journalists to encourage them to be responsible journalists and to aspire to leadership positions in newsrooms in Zimbabwe.  Similarly, each year we offer an average of five Zimbabwean journalists opportunities to travel to the United States on short-term reporting assignments or professional exchange visits.  We are committed to these types of activities because we believe that journalists will benefit from these professional experiences in the United States and that Zimbabwe can benefit from a free press.

Looking at the big picture, we are encouraged by developments in the media sector in Zimbabwe. Even though there appears to be quite a bit of work still to be done — including the licensing of community radio and independent television as well as the harmonization of media laws with the recently adopted Constitution — the recent dialogue sessions, including the outreach processes through the Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI), are some of the developments that give us reason to be optimistic.  We hope that Zimbabweans and journalists through representative organizations such as the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum can leverage these developments to encourage greater respect for freedom of the press.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental freedom enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  All governments must commit to uphold this fundamental freedom, which also encompasses press freedom.  Restrictions on journalists often run counter to the freedom of expression. Journalists, editors and publishers should be able to freely investigate, to research, publish and disseminate news, information in the public interest, and editorial and opinion articles.

Governments also have a responsibility to protect journalists from physical harm and intimidation, and when journalists are the victims of crimes, governments are responsible for investigating those crimes and bringing their perpetrator(s) to justice. When the press is censored or self-censors due to intimidation, all of society suffers as a consequence.

Governments’ role should be to encourage the dissemination of information across all these media platforms and to protect those professionals who distribute this information across these platforms.  Ultimately, the ball is everyone’s court, however.  It is up to each of us to extend our support to press freedom as a fundamental right to be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere.

I’d like to conclude by emphasizing that the United States government welcomes opportunities to cooperate on press freedom issues, and to work with like-minded parties to highlight cases of serious concern where press freedoms have come under assault.  As the Department of State’s Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski, recently noted, it is the policy of the United States to defend freedom of the press wherever it is threatened.  We will stand up for journalists and writers, for essayists and editors, bloggers and broadcasters, photographers and videographers, and for those who communicate through Twitter, Tumbler and other social media platform – and support their right to seek the truth and to tell us what they find and what they think, without censorship or fear of retribution.

Zimbabwe is facing a critical, transformative moment in its history.  Around the world publics are calling for freedom, transparency, and opportunities for self-determination.  New digital tools support this cause in a way that is faster and more widespread than ever before, and journalists play a central role in this effort.  The United States is willing and ready to assist through its various cultural and media programs as well as share what we consider to be our best practices.

Thank you.