CAIRO — Good evening, everyone, and thank you very much, Jay, for your kind introduction. I’m pleased to be with everyone here tonight to celebrate the value of journalism and the contribution of professional exchanges like The Open Hands Initiative.
The young American and Egyptian journalists gathered here tonight are the future of journalism both in Egypt and the United States. And it is great to see that they are developing their reporting skills together as they jointly cover stories.
I understand you are doing far more than sitting in a classroom this week. You have actually been moving around town, investigating leads, building stories, and shedding light on controversial issues.
I hope that the bonds you form in your work develop into lasting friendships and professional links that you can draw upon as you move forward in your careers.
Journalists all over the world are facing new challenges and opportunities, but none are doing so to the extent that journalists here in Egypt are. The January 25 revolution did not just usher in dramatic political change, it also entirely reshaped Egypt’s media landscape.
Egyptians have taken advantage of their new freedoms to launch a variety of new television stations and newspapers and to reinvigorate existing publications. Journalists of all ages and backgrounds are valued voices in a democracy. They encourage dialogues, constructive debate and transparency. Every day as I skim the newspapers or catch a television segment on Egyptian TV, I am reminded of the lively discussions that journalists are facilitating.
These conversations will be an essential part of Egypt’s democratic transition. They will inform Egyptians about their own country’s entirely new political environment. You young Egyptian journalists are in a unique position to shed light on the development of political parties, campaign platforms and the electoral system.
Citizens will rely on you to provide them with the information they need to make informed decisions as they decide whom to vote for or which party to support.
Your role will also be key as you report on the elections, visit polling stations, talk to candidates, and report concerns that voters may have. There will inevitably be problems in the electoral process. Certainly my own country has had its share of these in recent years. And you as members of the newly empowered Egyptian media will be there to report on them and to ensure the integrity of the elections.
While the technology of journalism may change with time, as we’ve seen with the expansion of the internet and social media, the core issues remain the same and I would like to briefly address some of those tonight.
I’ve worked all over the world, in Colombia and El Salvador, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and the United States. And in all these countries, the role of journalists and the interaction of media and the state was a major issue in public debate and in the country’s evolution.
The first principles of journalism are: A commitment to verifiable truth, independence from the subjects of the reporting, provision of a public forum for debate and compromise, and balanced representation of the society.
The press is accountable above all else for supplying factual and credible information to the people to enable them to make independent judgements and informed decisions. When the press and media are driven by rumor, by gossip or by personal interest, they are denying the public of their fundamental rights.
I have great respect for the vast majority of the newspapers, editors and hardworking journalists who strive for truth, impartiality and fairness in the articles they write and publish. However I must admit that I have been on occasion in recent weeks disappointed in some of the reporting that has not been factual and indeed, some if it has even incited violence.
The second issue related to the first is journalist ethics which I know is constantly debated and discussed in media circles.
A friend of mine who was a journalist recounted to me debating with her colleagues the degree to which a journalist should approach a grieving family after an accident. I had a similar conversation with my brother, who was a journalist at the time, about whether he was compelled to report adverse information about a prominent citizen, information which would surely cause the citizen to lose his job.
So the balance of the public’s right to know and the rights of an individual citizen to privacy is one that our citizens and our courts debate constantly, and countries as similar as the United States and the United Kingdom have essentially come to different conclusions.
The balance between freedom of the press and media regulation is a complex issue that each nation must ultimately determine for itself, but this has been a debate in many countries and one still not perfectly resolved in the United States.
What are the boundaries of reporting on a national security issue? In one country where I lived, parents’ groups petitioned the regulators to ban photos of combat since the pictures were causing traumatic reactions among children. I think all of us can see both sides of that issue. But many of these issues can be addressed by codes of conduct put forward by the media themselves instead of direct regulation.
What should be firmly resisted is limiting legitimate criticism by the news media under the guise of protecting national security.
In a country I served in some years ago where press freedom was often under vicious attack, a prominent senator was explaining how mercilessly the American media made fun of him and our other political leaders. He was making the point that criticism of how leaders do their jobs is not a national security issue but rather part of a healthy political debate. American politicians, he said, just accept it as part of the job. He went on to say that public criticism, even ridicule, meant that he was reaching his constituents and exposing his views to them.
Protection of freedom of the press in the U.S. has always been imperfect. During the past 200 years, brave American journalists, activists, judges and politicians have worked to improve legal protections for our media.
In order for a democracy to thrive, therefore, it requires an equally strong commitment on the part of both the government and the press. The government must guarantee the press its freedom and in exchange the press must report the truth. For Americans, the enjoyment of these crucial freedoms is part of our collective national conscience. It is once of the core liberties listed in our BIll of Rights and since our founding has been fundamental to our democracy and to our way of life.
As far back as 1786, former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson wrote that, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” But of course this view is not uniquely American. It is enshrined in longstanding international covenants as well.
Let me say in closing that all of us owe a profound debt of gratitude to the thousands of brave journalists who have been targeted by terrorists, by criminals or even by elements of their own government when they reported on official corruption, on criminal activity or even merely wrote news stories critical of their country’s leadership.
In Colombia, for instance, journalists and often their family members were targeted and killed by narco-traffickers. In other countries, journalists were taken from their homes in the middle of the night and tortured and killed.
Dictatorial regimes, criminals and extremists fear the sunlight that a free media shines on their activities so you are entering a profession that not only requires skill and integrity, but a good portion of courage as well.
For our part, the U.S. government is committed to helping courageous Egyptian journalists develop skills so they can report on significant issues affecting Egypt’s transition to democracy. We will send journalists to the U.S. to work with American news organizations to see how they do business and we will sponsor some training programs here on issues like data collection for elections and publication as well as journalist ethics.
And let me compliment Jay Snyder on his Open Hands Initiative. When I first met Jay, he was encouraging the U.S. government to do a better job on outreach to the world. He has clearly achieved his goal with this amazing organization.
His Initiative reflects the best tradition of American philanthropic endeavor and engagement to encourage democratic institutions abroad. For you students, this time with the Open Hands Initiative is about developing your craft. I wish you the best of luck for the rest of the project and look forward to reading it on GlobalPost.
I tell my staff in the Embassy every day how privileged we are and indeed how honored we are to be here at this point in Egypt’s transition. Seldom do we have a chance to participate in history like we’re having here in Egypt at this point. And to look out and see you young journalists who will play such a critical role in this is really very exciting. So I wish you all the best in this endeavor and assure you of our wholehearted support. Thank you. Shukran.