Making a commitment to media freedom
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In a speech marking World Press Freedom Day nearly two decades ago, then-Sen. Ted Kennedy observed that the media enjoy “broad protection” in the United States. “Freedom of the press is guaranteed by the First Amendment to our Constitution,” he noted, “and it has been upheld and amplified in countless court rulings as a cornerstone of our democracy.

“But even in this country, there is no cause for complacency,” Kennedy continued, noting – as others have done throughout U.S. history – that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

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I played a role in helping the legendary late senator make these points. Moving to Washington as a journalist in 1999, I was privileged to take part in the legislative process for an academic year as a congressional fellow through the American Political Science Association. Serving alongside some of the most seasoned professionals in the Senate, I helped shape legislation, met with interest groups and staffed Sen. Kennedy for public events. This work included drafting his remarks for World Press Freedom Day.

Later on, as a staffer for leaders of the foreign affairs authorizing committees in the Senate and House, my passion for media freedom and human rights in general was given voice time and again in members’ speeches, op-eds, resolutions and bills. It was heady stuff, hearing the phrases I’d written pronounced with such skill from prominent platforms, or seeing my rough-sketch ideas become codified in law. It was empowering to know how committed those key leaders were to protecting the rights of my former colleagues in the media, both in the United States and around the world.

None of those same leaders is in Congress now, but others have risen to the challenge. We’re seeing the results in legislation, public remarks and strong support for U.S. government programs that promote free expression around the globe.

One such program is being rolled out at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which until last year was known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and – full disclosure – until 2014 was where I oversaw external affairs as a member of senior management.

The USAGM’s mission is “to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” Under its authority, the venerable Voice of America is about to launch an ambitious free press campaign that’s meant to shine a light on threats affecting media freedom worldwide. Such threats range from overly broad libel laws that shield oligarchs from scrutiny, to intimidating the families and friends of reporters who dare to root out the truth, to jailing, torturing and even killing journalists just for doing their jobs.

“Around the world, the issue of free press is not actually being covered very well,” says VOA Director Amanda Bennett. “There’s a lot of things about journalists being imprisoned, there’s a lot of things about journalists in harm’s way, there’s episodic things when something happens, but nobody’s stepping back and looking at the whole issue of free press.”

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VOA and its sister organizations such as Radio Free Asia and RFE/RL serve an estimated weekly audience of 345 million people in 58 languages in countries where the media face these pressures every day. Supported by U.S. taxpayers, they strive to deliver timely and impartial news – local, national and international – via every conceivable medium, from shortwave radio to digital, depending on their audiences’ needs. They cover every issue under the sun, win awards at major venues such as the New York Festivals and are often cited as sources by media that don’t have their global reach.

“Free press is completely in our wheelhouse,” Bennett says. “With our content, we export the First Amendment.”

VOA’s role was formally laid out in its charter in 1960 and codified into law in 1976. It reads, in part, The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world … VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.”

So what happens when infringements on media freedom occur in the United States – at the hands, for example, of government officials or influential private-sector entities? Such issues arose during my time at the agency, and they continue to do so now. Will VOA’s new project report on them, or will it be tempted to look away and avoid actions that might jeopardize its federal funding?

Bennett insists such events will receive impartial coverage no matter where they happen. “We are independent of the political structures around us,” she asserts, referring to a traditional firewall that the agency’s leaders are charged with maintaining between these powers and the news organizations they oversee. “I take that independence very seriously.”

Given changes in the media landscape, the question won’t remain hypothetical for long.

In the latest annual World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, the United States has dropped three places to 48th of 180 countries. The Committee to Protect Journalists is keeping a weather eye on U.S. court cases with long-range implications for media freedom.

At the same time, social media and a proliferation of streaming platforms have increased competition for audiences’ time and attention, changing their expectations for how the news should look and sound. Alongside other U.S. media based, USAGM and the networks it oversees have struggled to keep up with these trends.

One development they are unlikely to embrace anytime soon is the use of robots as the “face” of the news. In mid-April, a Russian TV station caused a sensation with a robotic anchor prototype that was immediately assailed for its awkwardness and its potential to be abused as an automated propaganda tool.

But it’s worth noting that China’s official outlet Xinhua News introduced more subtle, artificial intelligence-enabled virtual anchors last November. Although not yet fully emerged from the “uncanny valley” that makes digital avatars appear unrealistic, they show potential in the long run to become cheap, compliant substitutes for humans in the aggregation and presentation of news.

To update a line from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” with a dystopian Huxley twist: O, brave new world that has such people in I.T.

We can only imagine the challenges that news organizations will face on World Press Freedom Day two decades from now. But one thing is certain: With an unwavering commitment to eternal vigilance, we can and must support them in bringing the light of truth to some of the darkest corners of the globe.

Lynne Weil has served as a multi-platform journalist in a number of countries, a staffer with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, a senior advisor to the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, and a senior executive for what’s now known as the U.S. Agency for Global Media. She is the new Director of External Affairs at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology.